Wednesday, January 28, 2009

First Houses of Joy

I lived in Detroit for several years and loved it; I've never been able to understand the negativity about the town. For a horror fan, it was a paradise.

It snows like hell in Detroit, especially in January. It was the first time I heard the expression "windchill factor". When you pump gas, you experience it firsthand.

As a new arrival, I was warned to steer clear of the drive-ins in Winter because of the snow and sleet. "It's best to wait until March or April," they'd say.

Did these people know who they were talking to?

I hadn't seen either film at the time. I was eighteen. When this ad mat appeared in the "Detroit News", I was shaking with excitement.

Last House on the Left had been banned in Australia for years. It was still banned three or four years ago. It had a rep. A great rep. That was all I needed.

I knew nothing about The House By The Lake because it didn't occur to me -- at the time -- that the film was called Death Weekend in the UK and Australia. I had read a review of Death Weekend in an issue of "Films and Filming", an excellent British periodical from the publishers of "Books and Bookmen". There had been a dynamite still of a cop being dragged behind a moving car. It was an image that never left me. Six years later, I'd take it for inspiration, and expand it into a modest feature of my own... Enough said.

The snow didn't stop falling all Friday. It had dug itself in for the weekend. My partner at the time warned me that driving on the slippery roads, in falling snow, was a recipe for disaster, especially for an Australian who'd only had his license for under a year and whose experience with snow was limited to writing on Xmas cards. So I nodded, acknowledging her concern, kissed her goodbye, and made a bee-line for the front door.

I was living in Mount Clemens, a suburb of Detroit that was approximately ten miles from the Gratiot Drive-In (it took its name from its street address).

I took my time, drove slowly, and ran the car heater at full bore. I was one of a chosen few who'd taken to the roads that snowy Friday night. The wipers were deflecting the falling flakes reasaonbly efficiently, but the hot air was drying out my eyes something fierce. I squinted to peer through the smudged windscreen. Every now and then, sets of bright, yellow eyes would sweep past me.

The Gratiot Drive-In emerged from a flurry. Its neon sign beckoned me in the right direction. I lowered the heat and lurched towards the ticket box. The driveway was a shagpile of mud. It was 730, but there were no other cars. I definitely had the right drive-in, though. Next to the ticket seller was a small, enticing poster for Last House. No amount of snow could dampen my enthusiasm.

When I paid my five bucks, I was handed a little square box that turned out to be a portable, in-car heater; they certainly didn't need those back in Australia. A portable air conditioner might have been nice now and then, though. I took this odd, unnecessary contraption off the ticket seller and drove on through the floating muck.

I parked dead center between the screen and the projection booth. I had my pick of spots. I wound down the window and reached out into the freezer to grab the speaker. Jesus, it was Arctic out there! I hung the metal speaker from the window and wound it up tight -- as tight as I could, anyway. That's when I noticed the gap. That gap had always been there, of course, but now it much more obvious and much more troubling. There was an insistent, chilly breeze blowing through that gap onto the side of my face. Suddenly I was very grateful for my unnecessary, in-car heater.

I watched Last House for the first time through falling snow, blunt wipers that left snail trails, and frequent blooms of condensation. Despite all that, and despite the buzz of the in-car, complimentary people warmer, I loved it. Experiencing Wes Craven's rough-edged cult classic for the first time left an indelible impression on my young mind. David Hess's "Krug" was just the sort of villain I warmed to and I couldn't take my eyes off him. When he commanded one of the kidnapped girls to "Piss your pants!", I felt like a very free man in America. I couldn't watch stuff like this back in Australia. Nobody could at the time. I felt lucky to be able to see this mighty movie at a drive-in. One of Detroit's finest drive-ins.

When I began work for Orion Pictures several months later, I would learn that the Gratiot and the Bel Air, an impressive multi-screen "ozoner", were the local industry's biggest outdoor earners.

The House By The Lake, which is a far more lyrical title than Death Weekend, became one of my all-time favorite movies that night, and it still is.

William Fruet's beautifully made revenge shocker, cut from the same cloth as Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and Boorman's Deliverance (remade almost literally by Fruet later on as Trapped aka Baker County USA), and sewn together with fabric borrowed from Wes, was a revelation. In addition to the brutal action and great location photography of rural Canada, the film had a literate, take-no-prisoners screenplay that had the magnificent Don Stroud spouting vicious obscenities (to Brenda Vaccaro) like: "You goddamned fucking cunt. You'll get yours, baby!"

Chuck Shamata, who plays an unbelievably sleazy dentist, almost steals the show as "Harry"; his attempts to get into Vaccaro's pants make up a major portion of the movie. Naturally, the deviant tooth puller gets his comeuppance at the hands of Stroud and his gang of psychopaths.

Unfortunately, the film has never been released on DVD anywhere in the world. Could it be that Ivan Reitman, one of the film's producers (yes, the Ghostbusters guy) is holding up the release because he's embarrassed by it? I sure hope not. This is the best goddamned film that prick has ever been involved with. The last I heard, MGM were holding the film's rights because of a deal that enabled them to acquire AIP product. If you're reading this, MGM (which I'm sure you're not), get off your fat,corporate be-hinds and start gathering the elements. Come on, get cracking!

During the House... screening, a second car joined the show. When the film finished, Last House started all over again; this was a common practise at US drive-ins.

The snow had gotten much heavier and thicker by that time and it was piling up on the bonnet so high that I needed to get out on several occasions and sweep it off.

So, knowing I'd be doing a lot more sweeping before the night was out, did I stay for a second viewing of Last House...?

What do you fuckin think?


  1. I dunno if you stayed, but I damn well would've!

    Great story. I'm totally enamored with the image of watching the opening credits of Last House, with the sound of Hess' "Road Leads To Nowhere" playing through an old window-latch speakerbox, through streams of falling snow.

  2. I was being facetious. You bet your ass I stayed.

    "...and the road leads to" piped from a rusty speaker as the snow fell and fell was a sublime experience and is a rich memory.

    And when the second screening ended, my car was the only one left.