Digital Drive-In Doom!

Disruptive technology, put simply, is innovation that transforms things so completely that everybody has to adjust. It can render entire industries obsolete or force everyone to upgrade their personal equipment. Holding out against disruptive change is hard, but sometimes it’s even harder to adapt.

I spent this past weekend in Vandergrift, PA to attend a 2-night Peter Cushing film festival at a drive-in. There are very few of these theaters remaining, and they’re staring at a deadline that threatens to finish many of them off once and for all. The studios are planning to go digital-only next year.

Digital is great for showing movies. There’s no “print” as such to break and decay1. Storage is much smaller and easier. The definition is crisp. There are probably enormous benefits for 3D.

There’s just the little matter of the roughly $75K needed to upgrade to a digital projector.

Drive-ins have a limited revenue season — many in the northern states only operate during summer — and like indoor theaters they make most of their money from concessions. So basically we’re looking at a snack bar that only operates for a few hours a day, during four months a year, needing to come up with tens of thousands in additional profit or give up on showing current movies.

I suppose they could get loans, but a bank is going to want to know how the hell profits will increase enough to pay the loan back. It’s not as though going digital is likely to bring in more customers. It’s simply necessary to not lose more business when the new releases stop being available on film.

It’s a sad situation. People who run small drive-ins stand to lose their businesses. As a culture, we stand to lose an enjoyable piece of our living history. That’s the way of disruptive technology. There’s nothing unique about the fate of drive-ins; I’ll just happen to notice this loss. With the pace of change accelerating, we’re all going to experience these disruptions many times in our lives. (Anyone else have to replace their LP collections?)

Through a 3rd-hand source I learned that the studios may relent on the hard deadline, or at least push it back. It would make sense; if there are fewer screens, there is less money to be made. More time might actually help. The drive-in I was at has raised a significant portion of the upgrade cost through fundraisers, but they still have a long way to go.

If there’s real hope in this case, it may lie ultimately in nostalgia. The mere act of watching a movie at a drive-in is antiquated. Who’s to say if showing older movies won’t increase attendance? Double-bills of famous mid-century films like “Giant” or “The Blob” could be a retro draw. See the movies your parents watched, as they watched them!

You never know. Revival screenings might just pay for the ability to show new movies going forward.

1. There are still ways to render a digital “print” useless, but let’s just agree that the rate of loss is much lower.


Adapting to Changes

With Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby looming over us like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the matter of film adaptations is once again a topic of unhappy internet chatter. As usual, it’s largely breaking along the views that a classic is being ruined and that the book remains intact. (Although this time a number of people are hoping that the film is a masterpiece of ill-conceived excess.)

For my own part, while I have always been fine with the glorious misfire that was the 1960s release of “Casino Royale”, the recent version incensed me. Given the opportunity to restart the Bond film franchise, the decision was made to start with him as a violent thug. To me, the core of the book was that he had been more or less playing at espionage until the events surrounding this job hardened him and gave him focus. So to throw that aside seemed to miss an opportunity as well as the point.

It’s not on a level with the attack by natives in “The Scarlet Letter”, but it’s a cinematic grudge I’ve held on to with all the strength that nerdrage allows. I still haven’t gotten over “Congo”, and to be honest the book wasn’t even especially good.

I do agree that the source is still there, and I’ve even clung to the thought that even a bad adaptation could get new readers for the book. I think it’s more likely that viewers unfamiliar with the work will simply move on.

I’d like to be able to move on, myself. I only have so much energy for outrage, and I need to save it in case Tom Hanks gets another Oscar.

Representing Women in Genre Fiction

I’m in the process of reading a science fiction yarn from 19621. Like many mid-century works, the sexual politics of the story can most charitably be described as “dated”. Although the only female astronaut, Gail Loring, is a biologist who has passed all of the requirements for the trip to Mars, she becomes nothing but a prize to be won by the men.

What are her thoughts on the role the book locks her into? She picks the narrator and tells him:

“In those bygone days I thought a trip to Mars was a career. I’m a woman, Bill Drake. That’s my real career.”

My purpose isn’t to single out the author or even this book. Anyone who’s seen or read older sci-fi is all too familiar with this outcome. The genre allowed women to hold doctorates in one hand, so long as they served coffee with the other.

At this, it was a significant step up from the heroic fiction women popular in magazines, comics, and serials from the previous generation. Women were either wild creatures to be tamed or feisty yet frequently in peril. Even iconic characters like Dejah Thoris or Wilma Deering, celebrated for being women of skill and bravery, spent a great deal of time waiting for their men to save them.

As with so many social issues, the representation of women in genre fiction has been improving slowly. A sub-industry of comics and TV shows played with the contradiction between conventional femininity and heroism (perhaps the most famous of which here in the US were “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Xena, Warrior Princess”). These were followed by movies about women in fetish leather who were little more than comely killing machines. (I’m looking at you, “Underworld”.)

Let’s not speak of the women in comics. Most heroines seem to outfit themselves at Lover’s Lane. To be fair, there have very recently been improvements in some of the titles at Marvel and DC, and I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Bandette. A creator owned title from Monkeybrain, its good-natured action and humor made it my favorite new comic this year.

Still, there’s a long way to go.

I bring this up because I consider myself a feminist (other things, too, but that’s enough for now). I thought it was enough for me, as a creator, to make my female characters with an effort to avoid sexist clichés. I wrote the Billy and Gravely comics with a deliberate undermining of the roles of women in B movies of the 1950s and ’60s. My story “The Heart of the Warrior” was explicitly about the aspects of rape culture that permeated so much early adventure fiction.

It’s not enough.

See, all my main characters have been men. All but one: Betty Marie, from “Dope Fiends of the Zombie Cafe!” — and I turned that into the first part of the Billy and Gravely series. I looked at all my planned projects, and they were all about men, too. I thought about changing them, but that felt wrong. You can’t just swap out characters; the whole story changes. Gender is only a part of the character, but every part is important. It seemed to me that it would be short-changing a new character by shoe-horning her into another project.

So I came up with a whole new story, for a female character I want to write about. I’d gladly read about her if someone else wrote her, which is my first criterion for any character. Who do I want to read about?

I want to read about a strong woman who has a personality — and eerie but thrilling adventures! She’ll also serve coffee, but only to her friends, only in her apartment and only if there’s some already made.



1. The Red Planet, by Russ Winterbotham. Monarch Books.

Review: Girls

A stretch of sick days, coinciding with my having finally gotten HBO GO running on my iPad, found me watching the first season of “Girls”. The show was created by and stars Lena Dunham, who has been criticized online for everything from not being progressive enough to not being thin enough. Having heard zero about the actual content of the show, I looked it up in the HBO app and pressed play.

I have to say, I hadn’t expected to like it as much as I do. Not to say it’s without problems, but I enjoyed it and will likely catch up with season two.

The premise is simple; four young women in New York are struggling with the transition into adulthood. Dunham’s character, Hannah, has just been financially cut off by her parents. Nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, as has been pointed out extensively, we’ve seen plenty of privileged white youth supposedly struggling in the big city.

While I join the chorus of voices pleading for more diversity, this isn’t the show to complain about. Not that it isn’t absurdly pale for a show set in a major metropolitan area. The show can and should do better at reflecting the richness and variety of culture that surrounds its main characters. I just don’t think it’s a valid example of business-as-usual television.

Although most episodes of the 10 episode season are half an hour in length, it is not a sit-com. It’s often funny, but there are no catch-phrases, the situations change, and everything doesn’t get resolved. In a sit-com the discovery of a diary leads to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and finally heartfelt apologies. In “Girls” relationships are strained and destroyed. It’s a subversion of story cliché of the sort that the show tends to do well.

There are exceptions. Shoshanna (played by Zosia Mamet) is treated poorly in this season. She is the least defined of the four friends, and she tends to surface only to serve as butt of jokes. In her longest appearance, she manages to accidentally smoke crack and leads her guardian on a chase through oddly empty streets. This is a time where the show descends back into formulas, and while amusing moments like this feel like a let-down.

The movie “Pleasantville” deconstructed the world of mid-century sit-coms by allowing disruptive change. This kind of change can introduce advancements while at the same time undermining business models or established ways. In one memorable scene the family patriarch returns to an empty house. No one is there to greet him or ask about his day. Suddenly his world has been overturned, his privilege stripped away, and not everything about him any longer. There is nothing he can do but wander through the dark rooms asking the emptiness where his dinner is.

At it’s best “Girls” reminds me of that moment, where someone who doesn’t even understand his or her own privilege is confronted by its absence. These characters have had the rug pulled out from under them, and they have to decide whether to regain their balance or behave as though they never lost it. It remains to be seen which way they’ll go.

True Crime: From Comics to Cable

I’ve been reading collections of an old comic called Crime Does Not Pay. Started during WWII (as evidenced by the many ads for war bonds) with issue 22 — renaming existing series was a common trick to avoid postal registration fees — the series presaged the post-war rise of noir and horror. Nominally reinforcing morality by demonstrating the folly of crime, the stories rely on the morbid attractions of blood and violence.

Being a big fan of noir and horror, this appeals to me on a visceral level.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I’ve used much of this year’s sick day coverage already. This adds up to several days spent sleeping, eating soup, and watching TV. Daytime TV is a close approximation of living death, but I didn’t always have the energy to get up and find another movie to pop in.

Fortunately we have Netflix streaming, so all manner of entertainments are available to me from the remote comfort of my couch. Alas, illness makes me astonishingly forgetful. I wound up leaving the TV on ID, Discovery’s crime channel.

Watching, and napping through, umpteen hours of shows about real murders and rapes made it inevitable that a few dots would connect in my dulled brain. This has undoubtedly been mentioned long ago by those far more clever than I, but true crime shows are the modern incarnation of crime and suspense anthology comics.

Now, crime has always been a staple of TV, and it’s hard to remember a time when you couldn’t find an episode of “Law & Order: What-Have-You” on one of a handful of channels at any time of the day. I’m not talking about cop shows, or lawyer shows, or even outlaw shows. Reality shows that follow investigations aren’t it either. I’m specifically talking about the shows that present real cases in as sleazy and lurid a manner as possible. Shows with names that scream panic and prurience: “Nightmare Next Door”, “Deadly Sins”, and “Pretty Bad Girls” to name but three.

All of these go beyond their stated objectives of imparting facts. They insinuate, they tantalize, and they exult in tragedy. “Nightmare Next Door”, which happens to be on while I write this, has a narrator that puns and mocks his way through each story. He might as well be Mr. Crime, the evil spirit that began serving as a narrator in Crime Does Not Pay with issue 24. Sultry music cues are not uncommon in these shows, and many re-enactment shots play up the sexual attributes of “bad girls”. “Scorned: Love Kills” plays up the prurient interest with lots of re-enacted sex, complete with overdubbed moans and sighs.

They aren’t concerned with telling a good story or presenting a detailed account. They want to grab your attention, tie it to a chair, and hold it as ransom to get ad revenue. They’re cynical crap, serving up a world of constant crime and inevitable punishment to keep us excited.

I could only love them more if they were comics.

Nope, Nope, Nope, Nope

On September 6th Tim and I headed for Vandergrift, Pennsylvania to attend Drive-In Super Monster-Rama, an event that features 8 classic drive-in horror movies over two nights. This would be our 3rd Monster-Rama, and we’d be meeting up with friends from Maryland and Nebraska to enjoy these excellent film prints.

This is part three of my trip diary, in which we begin to question our commitment to Sparkle Motion.


It’s difficult to assign a running gag, but Tim did just that by showing us the animated GIF of a cephalopod scurrying across the sea floor under the caption “NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE”. As Tim explained, “That octopus has places to be, and it’s not here.”

This spoke to us increasingly as the first night of movies splashed over the drive-in screen.

It all started innocently with Vincent Price getting his murder on.


Theatre of Blood

“To be fair, I would follow Diana Rigg into an obvious death trap.”

Vincent Price plays Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who jumped out of a window after being snubbed by a prestigious circle of theater critics. He washes up (heh) in a hobo camp and, with the help of his smelly new friends and a dude we’re not supposed to recognize as his daughter in disguise (Diana Rigg in a mustache is still gorgeous) — with said assistance, Lionheart exacts grisly vengeance on the critics.

The murders are Shakespearean set pieces, making this often feel like leftovers from “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” with its Biblical plagues theme. Price is in peak form here, a delight to watch as he over-acts with appropriate abandon. Diana Rigg makes the most of a relatively minor role, selling the character relationship with gazes filled with admiration and adoration.

I always enjoy Robert Morley, and (despite disagreement in our ranks) I think he’s particularly fun here. I have an affection for roles that call for the extravagant speech patterns and mannerisms of the cinematic homosexual so prevalent before the 1980s. Morley sets his teeth so firmly into this part that he nearly upstages Price during his own murder. It’s delicious fun!

I think we all enjoyed this one, and it saw the first appearance of the proclamation “The twins of evil!” in honor of a film that we knew we would be seeing the following night. In my defense I have reasons to hate miniature French poodles, even if Robert Morley is carrying them.


I know what you’re wondering. Yes! Tom Savini was there. We didn’t bother him, because he was there to see movies not doughy nerds.


Horror House/Haunted House of Horror

“Hey, let’s go back to the murder scene!”

I’d been looking forward to “Horror House” as it stars Frankie Avalon. Avalon is most associated with the series of beach movies he made with Annette Funicello, but he’s appeared in action, suspense, and drama films as well. So a proto-slasher flick — I figured, why not?

Because, as it turns out, the script is terrible.

Avalon’s role is to convince everybody not to behave sensibly, and he’s given absolute no reason to do this. Perhaps his insanely yellow sweater did the thinking. At any rate everyone runs around uselessly until the mystery comes to an abrupt and rather silly end.

I believe we chanted “nope, nope, nope” a few times during “Theatre of Blood”, but here’s where we began saying it with more conviction. Should the jealous ex-boyfriend go to the haunted house to find his lighter? Nope, nope, nope, nope. Do we even care who the killer is? Nope, nope, nope, nope.

We’d all seen much worse, so spirits were still relatively high. Plus there were movies to buy from the Creepy Classics guys and a lot of pizza burgers to eat (when not stuffing our faces with Jessica’s Gorgo cake).

Restocked and refueled, we prepared for the second half of the night’s program.



“Hi, I’m Ranger Totally-Lord-Satan”

I’m told that “Equinox” started life as a student film, which certainly explains why much of its running time feels like padding. There’s some rather nice stop-motion work here and there, but other than the hilarity of a park ranger named Asmodeus (“nope, nope, nope”) a lot of it was just more aimless running around. We’d seen that already, and with better production values.

Being three hours past my normal bedtime, after a very busy day, I passed the hell out some time before whatever was happening onscreen resolved. Not to fear, though; “Equinox” is available in a Criterion edition, a copy of which I’d purchased only a few hours earlier.

I’m genuinely curious to see it while I’m conscious. I do love me some stop-motion monsters.


Son of Blob


Once upon a time, Larry Hagman directed a sequel to the beloved and uniquely American horror film “The Blob”. I love the Drive-In Super Monster-Rama, and I appreciate the hard work that the organizers and drive-in staff put into it. That said, ending a night of films with “Son of Blob” is tantamount to serving stale graham crackers for dessert.

It’s like two different movies. There’s the short but awesome special effects one about the blob eating everybody, and then there’s the really long comedy with no discernible sense of humor.

Jessica and Scott scooted back to Monroeville like an octopus that has things to do. The rest of us stayed because apparently we hate ourselves. Also, blob.

Damn you, Larry Hagman!


It was around 5:00 am when we packed up and scuttled down the road to the motel. We were tired but ready to do it again the next night, by which time we thought we might wake up.

The Spider Bombs – “Nudie Cutie”

Some of you may be aware that I have a band. Well, a one-nerd band. It’s called The Spider Bombs, and it’s your basic ukulele, mandolin, rockabilly act.

I’ll likely write more about it at some point. For now, I want to let you know about my new release.

“Nudie Cutie” is about finding love in an exceptionally unlikely place: the sex-kitten lab of Dr. Breedlove. It’s a space-a-riffic visit to the world of the nudie cutie classic “Kiss Me, Quick”.

Please give it a listen.

Finding Waldo

Last night I went to back-to-back shows of Cinematic Titanic. For those not hep to my jive: Cinematic Titanic is five alums of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, sitting on the sides of a stage, making fun of a bad movie as the audience watches it.

It’s more fun than you’re probably thinking. You’ll just have to trust me on that.

Last night’s targets were “Rattlers” (experimental bio-weapon sends snakes to spree-killing) and “The Doll Squad” (all-women team of agents try to stop Michael Ansara from… doing something).

Between shows I ran into some former colleagues, and I joined them for a snack while we discussed terrible cinema and great comics. They failed to ditch me, so I sat with them for the second show. Much fun was had by all, especially by Jeff who got a couple glares from a woman sitting in front of him.

I was alone for the first show. While I’m okay with going to see things by myself, the long wait before the proverbial curtain rises is always a test of my resolve in the face of screaming nerves. It’s worse when there’s a crowd in place of a line, as there was last night. Clutching my satchel — to protect me, not it — I began scanning the lobby for any signs of the doors opening.

No luck. Time crawled, as did my skin. To distract myself I invented a game. Actually, I started playing before I realized what I was even doing! (Good brain. Give yourself some dopamine.)

I call it Finding Waldo. Here’s how it’s played.

1. Scan the crowd until you spot someone distinctive in some way. They should be far enough away from you that they could disappear in the crowd. This is Waldo.
2. Look somewhere else for a while. A minute or two, whatever you please.
3. Now find Waldo.
4. Repeat until you no longer have to play Finding Waldo.

It’s a simple game. You can’t really win, and honestly you kind of lose just for playing it, but it kept me relatively calm I could go find a seat.