The 1980’s: A Decade at the Movies – Part 2
August of 1984 brought two important events for my main movie man John Hickey and me. We both started college at Central Florida Community College in Ocala and a movie Mecca opened up just a few miles down the street in the form of the Cinemas West. This new theater was owned by the Litchfield chain and had a whopping six, count them six, screens! This may seem like nothing today with all the megaplexes but in Ocala in 1984, this was double what any of the other theaters had and it significantly increased our overall film selection. We quickly adopted the Cinemas West as our theater of preference for a combination of reasons including the atmosphere, prices, and selection. It was a very common sight to see the two of us there on any given Saturday or more often Sunday. We knew most of the employees by name and they at least knew us on sight. We even developed our own code with them on many things so if we went to the concession stand and asked for two bladder bursters and a mondo corn they could oblige us without missing a beat. We also quickly found out that the Litchfield chain provided an advantage for us in that they often got held up on releases from major studios and had to play filler films for a week to keep the screens in use and available.
The very first of these filler films, as we would later learn they were called, we saw was the stupefying Italian flick House by the Cemetery. This was one of those movies that defies logic at every turn and then runs full force into an ending that seems to ignore everything that has happened up to that point. Needless to say, John and I found much to make fun of and we began to hone our skills for movie mockery that Mystery Science Theater would make a business out of years later – and we didn’t even need robots! A few months later we were gifted with another one week wonder, this time from Canada. Superstition starred veteran actor Albert Salmi in one of his last film roles as a detective investigating murders being committed by the spirit of a witch. It’s about as good as it sounds with plenty of gory deaths. We were otherwise occupied the weekend this opened and had to make an unorthodox special trip out to see it on a weeknight since we knew it would not be held over. Also worth noting was the toxic waste mutant film Night Shadows (a.k.a. Mutant) starring Wings Hauser and Bo Hopkins. While this is actually a fairly enjoyable little slice of low budget horror, the film only received very sparse distribution, I had to catch it on my own at the mall in Gainesville, and it would go down in history as the final release for Film Ventures International before the company went bankrupt.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to get back to it, but in 1985, John and I started going to the drive-in regularly to catch some pretty cheesy double features that could only be found there. Unfortunately, the Skylark had been closed in early 1984 and a shopping center, called the Skylark Plaza, now stood as its tombstone. The Ocala Drive-In Theater was still going strong but it was starting to lean more towards showing second run mainstream films. There was still the occasional diamond in the coal bin though like the first double feature we ever saw together there. The main film was Jungle Warriors, a Mexican models vs. drug lords film with an awesome exploitation cast including Sybil Danning, Marjoe Gortner, and John Vernon. As much fun as this movie was, it couldn’t hold a candle to the second feature, an ultra low budget camper killer concoction called Don’t Go in the Woods. After laughing our way through the film, which was over ripe for ripping, we discovered that the battery in John’s car had died on us. We were forced to sit through the entire end credits listening to a slasher movie reworking of the song The Teddy Bear’s Picnic while we waited for my father to come jump us off! We were hooked on the drive-in from this point forward and I scanned the listings every week in search of any cool movies that might pop up there.
1985 was actually a pretty darn good year to be a fan of bad movies. In addition to those already mentioned, John and I got see to a re-release of Frank Henenlotter’s delightfully demented mutant siblings movie, Basket Case. We actually made our own indoor double feature with that one when we wandered into it after seeing the chop-socky romp 9 Deaths of the Ninja. The next stinker the Cinemas West served up was Backwoods Massacre, better known under its original title of Midnight from four years earlier. This would be the only release from the prolific Independent International that I would ever see in a theater. Next we got a double helping of spaghetti with the Italian zombie flick Burial Ground and Dario Argento’s Creepers, which combined both slashers and insects! Burial Ground was another one of the early films to be released without a rating and I was in for a shock when I requested a ticket and was actually asked for ID. The older lady at the ticket booth for the Cinemas West knew John and me and had sold us countless tickets for R rated films. She could see the puzzled looked on my face and immediately said “sorry, but this one is really bad”. I never figured out if she was referring to the film’s content or its technical proficiencies but I dutifully produced my driver’s license which verified that I was just a few days shy of turning nineteen. John didn’t even wait to be asked and already had his ID in his hand when he asked for his ticket.
It was around this time that the Springs Theater got the brilliant idea of doing away with matinee discount priced features and just charging the full price for all shows. In retaliation, John and I refused to spend any money at their concession stand on the rare times we did business with them at all and just smuggled food in from the K-Mart across the street. The old pricing structure was reinstated within a few months. The year ended on a bang with the release of Evils of the Night, an incredible mixture of has been Hollywood actors and porn stars in a tale of aliens taking over a small town hospital and harvesting blood from nubile young captives. John showed up late for this one and missed the stand out among many low budget laughs as alien Tina Louis claims to be paying thugs Aldo Ray and Neville Brand in gold coins but could clearly be seen dropping quarters into their hands on the big screen!
During the first half 1986, we were assaulted with a trio of the worst movies I have ever had the displeasure of watching in a theater. The first was The Dirt Bike Kid, a low rent version of the living vehicle premise that was popular in Disney’s Herbie the Love Bug film series. Dirt Bike Kid lacked any of Disney’s charm or humor and had the audacity to besmirch the good name of star Peter Billingsley by comparing itself to his recent holiday comedy classic, A Christmas Story. This was the one time I was ready to walk out of the theater before the credits rolled but John, who had driven that day, vetoed me with his refusal to give up on it. Next up was the far less painful but almost indescribable film, Aurora Encounter. This film was something akin to Little House on the Prairie with Jack Elam, George McFarland – better known as Spanky from the Our Gang shorts, and aliens! If that doesn’t sound bizarre enough already, toss in a scene with a Michael Angelo inspired flying bicycle that looked like it was lifted from another movie and a real child afflicted with a disease that causes rapid aging passing as the visitor from space and you can understand why our minds boggled. At least this was somewhat amusing in its own warped way, unlike Dream Lover which was just repetitious and boring! Advertised as a slasher flick with possible overtones of A Nightmare on Elm Street, what it delivered instead was a muddled mess of psychobabble that helped derail star Kristy McNichol’s career for a few years. John and I were the only two people in the screening we saw, one other patron who started with us wisely bailed before the end, and I tossed a wad of napkins soaked in soda at the screen out of unbearable boredom. Watching it dry up and slowly slide down the screen was the most entertaining part of the whole experience!
1986 was the year of the sequel, at least as far as the types of films John and I enjoyed were concerned. The final chapter in George Romero’s original zombie trilogy, Day of the Dead, started the year off with a bang. It was another in the new trend of unrated films that was becoming more widely accepted but in Ocala it was relegated to the drive-in, which was just fine by us. It was put on a double feature with the awesome Mother’s Day, which was new to us and made for a great evening of entertainment. In the fall we got my personal favorite entry in the Friday the 13th franchise, Part 6: Jason Lives, which turned the mongoloid murderer into a full on Frankenstein-like monster that now had a reason for why he couldn’t be killed. This film was something of a major event in our world as we were joined by Our Man in Tampa David Polk who was visiting us in Ocala the day it opened and Martin “Murph” Murphy, a local pal who would follow me to the University of North Florida in Jacksonville a short time later. John and I first went to Gainesville to see the unrated Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 at a regular theater but it was later booked into the Ocala Drive-In and well worth a second look. The second bill was a late entry in the women in prison genre, Naked Cage, which delivered pretty much what its title implied and was a prefect film to watch under the stars.
The flood of cool movies that had run through the mid-80’s began to dry up in the later part of the decade. The standout event at the cinemas in 1987 was another sequel, the long awaited Evil Dead 2 which did not disappoint and basically gave fans a bigger budgeted reworking of the original cult film. We also got a few minor fright flicks like The Offspring with Vincent Price, The Outing (A.K.A. The Lamp), and the oddly titled Blue Monkey, which starred Steve Railsback, another underrated actor who deserved better. At the drive-in, we caught the cult classic science fiction film The Hidden but we were really there to see the bottom half of the bill, Demons 2, which had landed under the radar. It would be another year before we were finally able to see the original Demons at the same drive-in with The Serpent and the Rainbow but being that this was an Italian horror film series, continuity was not an issue!
The one week wonders were also slowing down at the Cinemas West, probably due in large part to their having changed hands and now being owned by United Artists rather than Litchfield. The barrel still had some scrapings left at the bottom though and I really thought we were in for something special when I saw the ad for Nightmare at Shadow Woods playing that weekend with an image of a tombstone and vampiric skull rising behind it. As John and I entered the theater that day we were met by Wayne, the assistant manager, who always looked more like a real estate agent in his blue blazer. He knew us only too well and greeted us with “I bet you boys are here to see the turkey of the week!” We admitted that we were and Wayne, knowing it wouldn’t make any difference, clued us in that this was really a low budget slasher movie and half of that pittance had been spent on the salary of actress Louise Lasser. He went on to explain that this film had been made several years earlier and was gathering dust on a shelf somewhere when the studio pulled it out to use as a filler film. These were movies sent to theaters when a mainstream film’s release date had been delayed and they had to give them something to play to hold the space. In this case, it was for the Jim Belushi film The Principal. Nightmare at Shadow Woods (originally titled Blood Rage) turned out to be a mediocre horror movie about twin brothers where one was good and the other was a homicidal maniac who was good at framing his brother for his actions – holy misleading ad campaigns Batman! Coincidently, just a few weeks before seeing this movie, which we dubbed Turkey Terror because it takes place at Thanksgiving, I had moved to Jacksonville where I would find out many years later was where it was filmed!
By 1988 it was becoming readily apparent that the movie scene was losing momentum. Even though I was living in Jacksonville now to continue my education at the University of North Florida and John was attending the University of Florida in Gainesville, we still met up on weekends in Ocala and went to the movies as often as possible. Jacksonville offered some new cinema experiences like movie previews and test screenings that I had never attended before. They also hosted some special events like a Nightmarathon that showed the first three Nightmare on Elm Street Films back to back before premiering the fourth installment at midnight. There were dollar theaters which showed nothing but second run and passed over films which worked fine for both my tastes and budget. I got to see Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Phantasm II, and the truly awful Lurkers this way (even for $1.00 I seriously considered demanding my money back on this one which I still swear was shown with two of the reels reversed). Jacksonville had its own drive-in theater too but the Playtime was specializing in showing edited hardcore movies at that time which seemed a little pointless in light of the recent home video revolution. A few years later they would become the Playtime Family Drive-In and switch to first run films on their newly expanded three screens.
Back in Ocala, John I got to see Fulci’s The Beyond at the drive-in under its American title of Seven Doors of Death on the bottom half of the bill with Return of the Living Dead Part 2 (we had seen the enjoyable part 1 indoors a few years earlier when it premiered but the sequel was a let down). It didn’t matter that the film was heavily edited or already seven years old, it was just great to see this crazy Italian spook fest at the drive-in. During one of his last trips to visit us in Ocala, David Polk and I got to see the killer cockroach film The Nest, which was also one of the Cinema West’s last true one week wonders. The film had a better cast than it deserved, including Robert Lansing and Terri Treas, and a plot right out of the 70’s nature gone berserk fad but it was ultimately unremarkable and turned up on television shortly thereafter. In September, the long dormant Belleview Twin Cinemas finally reopened but Big Top Pee Wee probably wasn’t the wisest choice to kick off with. With a total of a dozen screens in Ocala at the time their really wasn’t much reason for us to drive South but I am sure many local residents were glad to have it back and, while it still had it’s share of troubles to come, I am happy to say it is still open today. The Ocala Drive-In had one pretty neat Halloween treat for us this year that is still hard to believe. After forcing John and I to sit through Nightmare on Elm Street 4 (which was my second viewing so I had no excuse for not knowing better), they cranked up a mysterious movie which the newspaper ad referred to as Blood Fiend. As it turns out, this was actually the thriller Theater of Death starring Christopher Lee from 1967! The twenty-one year old film showed every bit of its age and must have broken at least a half a dozen times on the night we watched it. The audience, in true drive-in fashion, was in to every minute of it and hands were poised ready to sound off a car horn concerto every time the screen went to bright white!
The decade of the 1980’s went out not with a whimper or a bang but more of a groan where the movies John and I enjoyed were concerned. There were a few enjoyable moments with films like Hellraiser 2, Shocker, or Pumpkinhead but we were more often stuck with forgettable flicks like Cameron’s Closet or Cyborg when we could find anything at all. The only real stand out film for us in 1989 was The Terror Within which was a swan song to classic exploitation films with great has been casts. This post-apocalyptic tale of mutant monsters terrorizing the underground desert base of a small pocket of surviving humans featured George Kennedy, Andrew Stevens and Terri Treas (again). The Ocala Drive-In had sold out almost completely to second run features but we did find one last surprise when they played the fifth installment of the rapidly becoming irritating Nightmare on Elm Street series. Undoubtedly chosen as the second feature for its title alone, Death Dream was actually Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby’s fifteen year old film Dead of Night. Aside from being a very enjoyable little low budget movie that combines the horrors of war with the tragedy of not being able to let go of loved ones lost, Death Dream’s climax takes place at a drive-in and it was filmed in Brooksville, Florida! It was nice end to an otherwise unimpressive year and a sad wrap up to a decade that had started out so well.
The 1980’s started with the home video revolution ramping up and by the end it had overtaken the theaters and completely changed the movie going experience. There was little reason for studios to bother promoting lesser films when they could be dumped straight to video at a fraction of the cost and usually make more money. Theaters had to rely on blockbuster films to draw audiences which limited film selection and made things much more generic. This is a trend that continues to this day and with rising admission costs and increased options from other avenues of movie watching like on-demand downloads, Hollywood seems to be fighting a losing battle to get people out of the house and into theaters. It may have been a period of transition that ended on a down turn, but the 80’s will probably go down in history as the last truly great decade to go to the movies.