Joe Bob Briggs (a/k/a John Bloom, by birth) is one of my heroes, and TNT's MonsterVision was a fairly formative cornerstone of my cinematic education.
Where my older Midwestern cousins had Svengoolie and New York brothers grew up with E. Nick Witty, Joe Bob was the man who kept my enthusiasm pumping with his "Drive-In Totals" every week, telling me just how much murder, mayhem and (edited out) nudity the night's title had to offer. Along with the West Coast Video at the bottom of the hill from my house, Briggs was helping me appreciate trashy VHS classics such as Return of the Living Dead ('85) and The Return of Swamp Thing ('89) when no one else gave these pictures the time of day. When Briggs showed up in Martin Scorsese's Casino ('95) - as Las Vegas slot shitkicker Don Ward - I about lost my goddamn mind. Here was my redneck mentor, being berated by Robert De Niro! How cool is that?
MonsterVision was really an extension of Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater, a television show he'd envisioned for The Movie Channel (which itself was a spin on his one man variety routine "An Evening With Joe Bob Briggs"). The Dallas cowboy's TMC staple became the cable network's highest rated series for over a decade, and Briggs wrote a series of hilarious, insightful critical companion books - such as Joe Bob Goes To the Drive-In and Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In - that were mind-blowers for a Philly teen who desired to digest every piece of weirdo cinema he could get his hands on.
Twenty-plus years later, I never thought I'd get a chance to ring up Joe Bob and simply shoot the shit about the history of exploitation criticism, ahead of his return to TV, via Shudder's The Last Drive-In (which airs tonight on their live feed). What ensued was a comfy, breezy chat that felt like I was talking to a lost uncle, who was still looking to spread the gospel about strange cinema...
BMD: I have to tell you - as a guy who grew up watching TNT's MonsterVision, reading all your books, and even devouring old tapes we used to make of Drive-In Theater, I never once thought I'd talk to Joe Bob Briggs on the phone.
Joe Bob Briggs: Oh, well...you'll find I'm a lot easier to talk to than you probably think. [laughs] Where'd you grow up that you were watching tapes of Drive-In Theater?
BMD: I'm an East Coast kid: Philadelphia. We used to dub them off cable and I had a stack of hand-labeled VHS that I'd watch constantly. Between your show and the video store at the bottom of the hill from my parents' house, I had a whole library that helped me fall in love with horror.
JBB: That's so great. Do you ever go back there anymore? I used to do a lot of shows in Philly.
BMD: No. My mom and dad actually moved to Pittsburgh, so when I visit family, that's where I end up going nowadays.
JBB: Well, I've done stuff out there, too - at the Hollywood Theater, if you know that place. We did a show with the movie Trick Or Treak ('86). A Halloween thing. Had a really good crowd, too. I've always tried to get Pittsburgh to do a horror marathon, based on the idea that it's the birthplace of modern horror...you know, with George Romero and Night of the Living Dead ('68). Can't get it going, though. I've tried to get several people to do "the ultimate horror festival", but I can't get anything really going. I need somebody to go full bore; like the Sundance of horror.
BMD: Have you ever heard of Exhumed Films in Philadelphia? They've actually been doing a 24-Hour Horror Thon for about ten-plus years now. That's one of my favorite events; used to go every year before I moved to Austin, and then I flew back to go again. They run a whole marathon of movies on 16mm and 35mm, with no interruptions. It's pretty spectacular to behold.
JBB: Are those the guys who are set up in the old mausoleum? I did a show there one time.
BMD: No, that's Cinedelphia, which is run by Eric Bressler. But Exhumed has done shows there, too. They ran all of Dario Argento's "Animal Trilogy" on 16mm back in the day, which was cool as hell.
JBB: That is cool as hell. Argento on 16mm - I guess that makes sense, given how some of his movies were distributed on 42nd Street back during that heyday of grindhouse cinema.
But there are so many horror events these days, I just want somebody to be like, "let's be the Cannes Film Fest of Horror". Step up like they do in Austin...with the one they have in September...
BMD: Fantastic Fest!
JBB: Yeah! Tim League is really trying to create the "go to" place for...well, whatever you call that genre. I just always thought it's gotta be the big "event"; everybody's gotta go.
BMD: The folks at Fantastic Fest - Evrim Ersoy, James Shapiro, and the crew there - they're all just...well, they're fantastic! They're bringing us the real exciting, fringe genre stuff that you can't see anywhere else, and then mixing it in with big studio titles. It's such a phenomenal event. My favorite week of the year.
Hell man, come to Texas. Come hang out with everybody. You're a legend. I don't think anybody would say "no".
JBB: I'm gonna be at one of the Alamos in Dallas in a few weeks...the night before this Shudder thing. I think it's the one in Richardson, to present Sleepaway Camp ('83). I've done a lot of Alamo stuff in Austin stretching back years and years. I had a book titled Profoundly Disturbing. They wanted me to come and show excerpts from movies I talk about in the book. So, I did, and the thing ran so long that I was talking and, around 2 in the morning or so, I asked "do you guys want me to cut this short?" And everybody's like "nooo...nooo! Have another beer!" We just kept going and it turned into this four hour thing. It was at the old Alamo at Lamar. Is that still there?
BMD: Sort of. They renovated it and basically built around the old bones. I live about five minutes from there.
JBB: Oh really? That's great. I about fell off the stage there.
BMD: Now, I've always wanted to ask: I grew up reading your books and Bill Landis' Sleazoid Express. To me, you were always the Southern answer to Landis, but you studied sports writing at Vanderbilt...
JBB: Well, I didn't "study" it. When I was 13 years old I got a job as an apprentice at the Dallas Times Herald copy booth; I got a copy boy job, essentially. From the time I was in junior high to high school, I worked at the local paper in Little Rock [Arkansas]. So, I got a job there in the sports department, and they have this scholarship through Vanderbilt (the Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Scholarship), and I won it. So, I went to Vanderbilt on a full scholarship, only I didn't play sports, I wrote about them. There are some other writers who won it that you may be familiar with: Skip Bayless won it the year before me...ESPN guy. Roy Blunt Jr. won it...guys like that.
But when I started writing about exploitation films, it was basically me and Bill Landis, and we were in touch. Because Bill was - I don't know if you know much about him - but he was kind of a flamboyantly gay man who'd hang out at the seediest Times Square grindhouses. But he'd not only write about the movies, but also about the other stuff that went on in the theaters, if you know what I mean. He was covering the grindhouses in the city, and I was covering the drive-ins out here in Texas. We were the only guys taking these movies seriously, becuase most people considered them pornography. Mainstream newspapers didn't really pay any attention to them. They sort of ignored them. You actually had to go to the drive-in to review them, because there weren't any critics screenings or anything.
So, that's what I did. I'd go to the drive-in every Friday night - sometimes two or three drive-ins during a night - and I saw everything. [laughs] That's how it started. Sometimes you weren't even sure if what you were seeing were "new" movies, because they might be a movie you saw last year, just with a new title. I got to know these distributors, and became friends with them. There was this one guy named Leo Kerr, in Marina Del Rey, California, and he ran a company called Motion Picture Marketing. I'd call him up and say "OK Leo...Swinging Barmaids ('75)...is that the same movie as Swinging Waitresses?" And he'd go, "yep, you got me. How'd you know that?" And I'd say: "because you only changed one word in the title! C'mon Leo!" [Laughs]
Those exploitation guys in the '70s, it was like the Wild West.
BMD: You're not kidding. But that's also what made it so fascinating.
JBB: Sure! Hey, you know, you're the first person I've ever talked to who knew who Bill Landis was. [Sleazoid Express] was the coolest fanzine out there. I always read it, but I never got to actually meet Bill in person. The only other person besides us who was writing about this stuff was John Waters. He had this book called Shock Value...
BMD: Yeah, it's one of the greatest books on trash cinema - and really just cinema in general - ever written.
JBB: Now, I did meet John later. I had him on my show. We kinda reminisced about some of the guys - these explotation directors - who didn't even know they were famous. We'd go to them and say "hey, your movie's going to be released on VHS!" And they'd look at us like, "really? Those still exist?" Folks like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Doris Wishman...they didn't think people were watching their movies, and were amazed their work would get a second life.
BMD: Now, do you remember the first review you ever wrote? I always see you citing Joe D'Amato's The Grim Reaper ('80)...which was also known as Anthropophagus...
JBB: Yep, that's the one. It has about six different names. Obviously, no movie is going to be released at an America drive-in under the title Anthropophagus. In that era, they always disguised the fact that the movie was from Europe. They always wanted you to think it was from America, despite the fact that all the crew names were Italian or Greek. They'd even fake the names at the beginning of the film, during the title sequence. So, I didn't know it was an Italian film. I didn't know who Joe D'Amato was. It was just a creepy little thing I watched!
You know, sometimes you'd watch these things and legitimately think: "this could've been made by a maniac." [laughs] They were grainy, they had mysterious origins, you're watching it at a drive-in. There was no Internet to look these things up. They'd just come out of nowhere! But that's how it worked.
I remember one time I went to the Apollo drive-in in Dallas, and it was so cold that I was the only car there. I kept having to turn on the engine to keep the window from fogging up. That was the night I saw [Ted V. Mikels'] Ten Violent Women, which was great.
BMD: Now what was the movie where Joe Bob came alive in your head? Was there a specific moment where the voice appeared in your head and you were like "shit, this is how you do it"?
JBB: Here's the thing: I was working at a mainstream newspaper. I went to my friend - the Entertainment Editor, Ron Smith. I told him I was really interested in these films that nobody reviewed, so I'm gonna create this populist film critic who loves these films. But editors hate these films, and we worked together to get it into the paper, so that copy editors didn't really know what we were doing. Now, the big secret about newspapers is that most editors don't actually read their own paper...
BMD: It's not that different with websites nowadays, honestly...
JBB: [laughs] Well, at that point, most editors would look at the front page, the sports...they didn't look that deep into the back sections, which is where I put my stuff. So, I told Ron, "give me the most obscure corner of your section", which was a Friday section called "Weekend". It was a nasty newsprint thing that was full of discount furniture ads, and the ink would come off on your hands. It was just awful. We buried it back there on page four or something, and by the time the top editors figured out what we were doing, it'd already be an established routine. So, that's what we did.
[Joe Bob] became popular - even though it was buried back there - that it got enough mail and attention that they just sort of kept it running. As a result of that, and because I had to find these distributors who put these films out, I became friends with [B-Movie producing legend] Roger Corman. Roger was fascinated that I'd created this column, and all the "drive-in totals" (writer's note: which were a tally of all the boobs and blood and mayhem in each movie Joe Bob watched) came from conversations that I'd have with Roger.
Because Roger could go on for hours about his "rules" for making an exploitation movie, and what he required, content-wise, to sell each picture. He'd go [starts doing Roger Corman voice]: "you know, Joe Bob, I'd always tell my directors that in an action film, you need at least one chase scene within the first fifteen minutes. Now, it does not necessarily need to be a motor vehicle chase scene. It can be a chase scene of another type. However, I'd say in about 80% of my product, motor vehicles are the cheapest way to accomplish our purpose." [cracks himelf up]
BMD: I was always astonished by all the ways Corman figured out how to make money, right down to how many boobs could be in a film.
JBB: Exactly. He'd say [resorts back to Corman Voice]: "in a movie involving female nudity, we require three actresses. The lead actress must show her breasts twice - once near the beginning of the film, and once near the end. In-between, we need two other actresses who will do one scene of breast nudity each. Those four scenes will create the illusion that the viewer is seeing a lot more nudity than they actually are."
He had it down to a science. [Corman Voice]: "the ideal length of a movie is 82 minutes. The reason for that, is that 82 minutes is the maximum amount of film that can go into four film cans. If you go to 83 minutes, then the cost of your shipping increases by 20% because of that fifth film can." All these principles of exploitation I got from Roger, who was a genius at how to entertain a crowd. He'd hire these hotshot film directors out of USC or UCLA (writer's note: you know, like Francis Ford Coppola) and give them the rules. He'd tell them they could do anything artsy fartsy that they wanted, but they also had to follow the rules.
BMD: How did "An Evening With Joe Bob" come about? How did you jump mediums from print to doing a one man show? Was that just the natural evolution of the character, in your mind?
JBB: I was doing a lot of - well, the column always had two parts to it. You had the rant, and then you had the movie part. So, I was doing both: the rant was the "Joe Bob, Philosopher" part. And then there's the "Joe Bob, Movie Fan" part. So, I'd combine them together. My favorite show I'd do was "How Rednecks Saved Hollywood". It'd combine about 200 clips from movies with this rant about the rich history of the redneck, where he comes from, how he thrives...all told through movies. They were never quite stand-up shows. I tried to do comedy clubs, but I never quite fit inside of a comedy club. Because I don't tell jokes. I tell stories. So, I designed it to hit college campuses, and places where people would soak this stuff in.
I love the live audiences. When you're doing TV, it's really just you talking to two people in a concrete room. That's satisfying in a way, but nothing's quite as satisfying as the live shows...at least on an emotional front.
BMD: To go back to your reviews for a minute: something that always fascinated me about you and Bill Landis - the guys who pioneered writing about what we now somewhat wrongfully refer under the catch-all of "cult cinema" - is that you did it during an age where, as you even put it with your trips to the drive-in, you had to really work to find these pieces of weirdness.
Now, I run one of the last video stores in America, and I get into an argument with folks a lot about the fact that I don't think that "cult movies" really exist like they did in your day, due to the invention of the Internet, all of the boutique labels putting out special edition Blu-rays of stuff I remember ordering tapes of off eBay...shit like that. Even channels like Shudder are making films that were once extreme rarities available at the click of a button. Do you think "cult movies" still exist in the digital age?
JBB: Well...it depends on what you mean by "cult", because the meaning of "cult" has evolved over the years. A "cult movie" during the '70s was El Topo ('70) or Casablanca ('42)...
BMD: Hell, even Vertigo ('58) was tough to see for years...
JBB: Yeah. Danny Peary wrote a book that was very influential called Cult Movies in the early '80s, about how these movies that ran at midnight for weeks at a time became "cult movie shows". For example, [Frank Henenlotter's] Basket Case ('82) ran for three years as a midnight show at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village, and that became the definition of "cult movie". On the other hand, you had something like The Rocky Horror Picture Show ('75), which became something of an event - a gathering that was interactive.
What you have now are theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse and groups in other cities who celebrate "alternative movie history" of one sort or another, and there's certain films that play with a live audience that are our new cult films. Now, you're right in the sense that these folks go back into the past and do these revivals, but when you go to an indie film fest where the really low budget guys are working, those are the true cult movies of today. They don't get wide distribution, but they're out there, and some of them will break through.
One of the strangest things to me - and I'm not really sure why this is the case - is that all the technology for making movies became very cheap and readily available. So, why don't we have a bunch of low budget, weird cult movies a year? Why don't we have at least fifty or a hundred? The problem with movies always was that the barrier of entry was so high due to the cost. Well, now that's gone. So, everybody can get out there. But what's sort of annoying is that a bunch of people are trying to replicate the '80s - these movies they see at the revivals - instead of making their own damn movie in this time period. I don't know what the disconnect is in the filmmaking world, who should be making the next level of horror movie. They should want to be Guillermo del Toro or Jordan Peele...but they just don't. We don't have the scripts and the work is just not coming out.
You might know better, since you cover this stuff all the time.
BMD: I like digging into the DTV stuff these days - guys operating on a very strict budget and "rules" like Corman used to outline. Those are our modern New World and Cannon Films type stuff that get ignored a lot of the time because they skip the theatrical run and end up in Redboxes. But there's weird vision and interesting actors like Scott Adkins giving old stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme a run for their money.
JBB: Plus, a lot of cult cinema these days comes from overseas, just like it did from Italy. Suddenly, there will be this wave of movies from Sweden or South Korea, and they'll have a distinct quality about them that's different from anything you've ever seen. Yet they won't be in English, so they'll have a limited appeal.
But cult movies will always exist, because "cult" means "on the fringes", and there's always going to be great people working outside of the norm. What they're making is just going to be constantly changing.
BMD: Regarding The Last Drive-In for Shudder: why did you choose to do a marathon as opposed to a new series?
JBB: You know, I'm not really sure about the answer to that. When I first started talking with Shudder, they suggested I host a couple double features, and I just didn't think that'd make much of an impact. At first, I thought it'd be cool to do a whole 48 hour marathon, where we go the whole weekend, and I'm hosting movies. But we, uh, scaled that back...[chuckles]
Right now, the idea is to do 13 movies in 24 hours, but I don't even think we're gonna make that. It's probably going to be something more along the lines of 26 hours. However, "13 movies on Friday the 13th" seemed like something we could market well, and the idea of doing it live on a streaming network made it more like "appointment TV". You gotta tune in, like the old days. When we do it, it's all on the live feed. Everything about it is experimental, but I always loved the idea of an "iron man" marathon - dusk 'til dawn.
We talked a lot about what type of movies they should be: classic movies, rare movies, "so bad they're good" movies, weird finds...and we tried to combine all those things. There's a few classics, one European weird thing, a few "lesser" films whose reputations I want to rehabilitate a bit...like Tourist Trap ('79), which is a movie I love.
BMD: They just showed that here in Austin on a 35mm print like a week ago or so...
JBB: It seems to be coming back, right when I want it to come back, which is great.
But it's very gratifying how many people got into the idea of [The Last Drive-In] right when we announced it, which surprised me a bit. I'd been off the air for so long that I wasn't really expecting that. Stephen King wrote a big endorsement for me on Twitter, so I'm loving it so far.
BMD: If I could be so bold...you might underestimate how much you influenced a whole generation of films fans. Your writing, and especially MonsterVision, are touchstones for so many. I know I wouldn't be writing about movies, or running a video store, had I never tuned in to TNT every Friday night, or taped those episodes off The Movie Channel, or sought those books out at the used shop in my town. You're a hero to a whole legion of weirdos.
JBB: The most enjoyable thing to me is when somebody comes up during an event and - while they don't use these words - they're saying something along the lines of "you legitimized my love for these movies". They loved the movies, but they felt guilty about it for some reason - maybe their parents, or their upbringing, or what have you - but I made them feel like it was OK to love them for what they were. There's no shame in loving these movies. That's my favorite type of testimonial. I brought them out of the closet!
BMD: Before I wrap things up, I wanted to ask - I keep a list of what I call the "Facemelters". These are the movies that you give to someone when they just want to have their mind blown by something totally bizarre and out of left field. What's one movie you think could blow people's minds that just doesn't get the recognition that it deserves?
JBB: Oh boy, it really depends on the sophistication of the person you're talking to. This always happens to me: I get put on a horror convention panel, and introduced as "the foremost expert on such and such" and then the first question I get, I can't answer. This is usually because it's coming from a guy who never leaves his apartment, has watched 40,000 movies, and is asking about trends and titles I didn't even know existed in the first place. For a guy like that: he's gonna want to watch Blood Harvest ('87) with Tiny Tim. Once you tell people "you know there's a horror movie starring Tiny Tim?" Most don't know that. Is it a great movie? No. I gave it like two-and-a-half stars or something, but for the cult value of Tiny Tim starring in a horror movie, it's worth it.
There's always the Belgian pig fucking movie...I always forget the name of it (writer's note: pretty sure he's referring to 1974's Wedding Trough). You don't wanna watch the whole thing, but it's definitely one of the most shocking things you could watch.
But for somebody who wants to start off on horror, what I'll always tell them is Basket Case. It's funny and horrifying at the same time, and it's not what anyone expects.
BMD: And it's playing at The Last Drive-In this weekend!
JBB: It certainly is. With me being annoying right after it!
The Last Drive-In horror movie marathon begins Friday, July 13th @ 9/8 PM EST/CST on the Shudder Network.