Hooptober 2022 Universal Monster Drive In Extravaganza (#39-43)

Ladies and gentlemen, to close out Hooptober (well, I still have a few movies to write about), my wife and I participated in a movie marathon at our local drive-in. Every year, Silver Moon Drive-In in Lakeland, Florida uses its two screens to host Halloween movie marathons. One screen usually shows older Universal monster movies and the other shows slightly more modern fare. As fans of horror movies, we’ve wanted to go for a couple of years but things didn’t work out for whatever reason. This year though we made the effort to plan accordingly.

Doing this is a commitment. We live about 45 minutes away from Lakeland. Both screens start around 7:30pm but depending on the screen, we’re not getting home until about 3-4am. So we loaded our car with snacks and lots of caffeine. For our viewing, we picked the side with the Universal Monster films whose line up consisted of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, and The Invisible Man. Part of this was because it ended way sooner than the “Retro” side whose last movie A Nightmare on Elm Street wouldn’t start until 2:45 but also thanks to streaming, we’d seen the movies on the other side countless times. Seeing the Universal horror films at a drive-in seemed perfect for that venue.

We get there around 6:30. Already festivities have kicked off. Christa goes to the concession stand to see if there’s commemorative merch (there isn’t). The concession stand is fully decorated for the season. On her way back to the car, she does see a Dracula and for some reason a Michael Myers. There’s also a coffin set up off to the side for a fun photo op that I forgot to get a photo of or in.

Dracula kicked off the night at 7:30. At this point, we’re both roaring and ready to go. Dracula is a perfect starter for this as Tod Browning’s eye for the gothic sets the perfect mood. I think of the Universal movies for me this might be under appreciated. As we watch this and having just seen Nosferatu, I’m curious where the tradition of Dracula being the coachman comes from. I suspect it is something from the novel which I haven’t read in awhile. Christa comments on the truly native Transylvanian flora in Castle Dracula, the possums and armadillo. Something that struck me watching this is how centered around Renfield this version of the story is. It’s Renfield who goes to see Dracula and then brings back to London. I love that in the space of a cut, Dwight Frye’s Renfield goes from sane to crazy. The shot of him looking up as they open the cargo hold is maybe my favorite of the movie. What weighs the film down is the second half which shows the film’s stage roots. Still Bela Lugosi’s Dracula has fun toying with the folks in London and I do love the Carfax Abbey set for the finale. We’re off to a good start here.

Photo by Christa Newman

At some point during the later part of the movie, Christa knocks over chips in the car and my phone slides down the the side of my seat. Lots of cars arrive late which means we’re getting the screen half lit up during the movie. It kills a little bit of the mood of these films. Some folks leave immediately after Dracula and I’m like why miss any of these films? Also $25 a car is a lot of money for 70 minutes longer movie.

At 9:02 Frankenstein begins. I love the intro for this which prepares you for the tone of this film. James Whale makes this genre into such gothic camp. Every time I watch this, I forget just how modern the filmmaking feels. Whale’s direction moves the camera and the lighting sets so much of the mood. The sets in this are so huge. Boris Karloff as The Monster remains the gold standard for movie monster acting. His performance is both eerie and incredibly human. The Monster comes across as a developing child unaware of its power. It knows when it’s done something horrible but doesn’t know how to fix it. This remains a very funny and very queer coded film.

Photo by Christa Newman

There’s a spot in front of us people keep trying to get into the spot in front of us then leave. They all keep backing into it with little luck. Also one car doesn’t seem to know it’s back lights keep going off when a door opens. This means we keep seeing these red lights during movies. It’s annoying.

The Wolf Man howls at 10:30 and I’m up to Pepsi number three at this point. This is is a first time watch for at least me and despite a certain podcast host’s very clear negative opinions on the lead of this, I try to watch with an open mind. However, this film pales in comparison to the two previous ones. Dracula and Frankenstein look like they’re inventing new languages and ways of making films. The Wolf Man just seems to be playing around in those things. The tools are already there. Why do something new? Still even then there’s no guiding logic or aesthetic here. Except for Claude Rains, every person in this sleepy “English” town is American. I joke we’re in California, UK. Lon Chaney is less miscast and more wildly out of place. Larry Talbot becomes not a doomed soul but a poor schmuck. His Talbot is such a towering creep that the real mystery of this film is why any woman would be attracted to him. Even worse is that Chaney’s Wolf Man has no thought behind it. Think of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Boris Karloff as the Monster. Lugosi portrays Dracula as an aristocrat ready to sow chaos while Karloff’s monster is a tragic creature that can’t comprehend the world it inhabits. Chaney’s idea for a Wolf Man is that he barks like a dog and moves as if trapped in a jungle gym. Also this film puts its themes and subtexts in big neon lights. Did you know Larry Talbot is a doomed soul? Did you realize the werewolf is an internal struggle between man’s intellect and bestial nature? Also if I hear that damn poem one more time I’ll scream.

After The Wolf Man finishes, most people bail. This seems like a good point for folks to make a break. It’s close to midnight and that’s late. Christa and I however are here for the long run.

11:50 is when Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man starts. It also the return of that fucking poem. Out of courtesy to my neighbors, I just groan “Not this stupid poem” instead of scream. The first transformation and kill are cool. Christa quotes Heath Ledger’s Joker when Larry Talbot says look at my scars. We both have a laugh at everyone commenting at the werewolf exclusively using teeth but not claws. I don’t know if it’s because I just saw The Wolf Man but the filmmakers seem to think it’s audience both don’t remember that film or what a werewolf is. Also the scene where Larry finds The Monster in ice is cool but how does Larry Talbot know what Frankenstein’s monster is or what he needs to look for? This movie is so dumb. There’s a musical number that goes on far too long, oh boy. When they find Baron Frankenstein’s journal, it has a title that of course is the called The Secrets of Life And Death. Frankenstein really was going for the book deal. I don’t think anyone knew how to end this very, very dumb movie.

Finally we end with The Invisible Man. Christa has collapsed but I’ve got enough gas for this. This is my favorite Universal monster movie. It’s so off the wall and willing to engage in gleeful chaos. Claude Rains is great in this film about a man who made himself an outsider by society’s standards. He spends most of it in bandages but truly sells it with his body language and voice. Thinking about how people make their own opinions on Griffin before they meet him. Really you could watch this as a metaphor for a man who realizes he’s gay, tries to fix it, and then weaponizes their otherness against world unprepared for it? Also fun casting note, I forgot t Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life is in this. This is my favorite movie for the night.

There’s still a lot of cars on our side as The Invisible Man ends. I’m impressed with everyone who stayed for all of these movies. Because of the vibrations of my car stereo, Christa ended up watching this one too. As we leave on our trip home around 2:20am, we see that Lost Boys, the second to last movie over there, has about twenty minutes left. We are grateful that we’re heading out now and getting home around 3am. We both had a great time revisiting these wonderful horror movies, even the ones we were less enamored with seeing. We There’s few things as fun and satisfying as watching horror movies at a drive-in.

Photo by Christa Newman

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