I am not a television watcher, a fact that becomes increasingly obvious as I struggle even making it through one 20-hour series since February. But even with my (almost exclusive) preference toward theater viewing, I am tempted by things like TCM and Criterion and so on. But when I heard Joe Bob Briggs had re-emerged on the Shudder channel, I pulled the trigger and actually committed to a pay channel. (I had been musing with getting Shudder for a while. My aversion to watching movies on TV doesn’t necessarily extend to trashy horror, it seems, and there’s scant chance of most of these films appearing on the big screen again soon.)
Joe Bob Briggs is, I think, both the last and the greatest of the horror movie hosts. If you’re almost 29 (like me), you may not remember the days of the local TV horror show host, like Sinister Seymour (Los Angeles), Ghoulardi (Cleveland), or Svengoolie (Chicago). The American era of the local horror host is (fittingly) bookended by Vampira (who ironically gained immortality for her appearance in Plan 9 From Outer Space) in the early days and Elvira (sued by Vampire for stealing her act) at the end. Elvira would gain national prominence in the era of expanding cable channels and syndication, parlaying that into a 40-year career that includes a movie or two, a lot of campy live shows (she “hosted” Knott’s Berry Farm’s annual Halloween Haunt for years) and a ton of merchandise.
Unlike these past luminaries, however, Joe Bob is more of a straight-up movie reviewer (he shifted from reviews of traditional and classic movies when he discovered the fascinating mechanics behind successful exploitation film-making), a serious writer (nominated for a Pulitzer for his accounts of 9/11) and a much less campy and more sincere lover of drive-in movies. When he gives Phantasm four stars, he’s being sincere, and he’s not afraid to give C.H.U.D. two stars and call it out for a bunch of “Shakespeare in the Park” actors “going slumming”. Likewise, if his persona is somewhat affected, it’s not shallow: He’s from Texas, went to school in Arkansas, and he’s currently touring with a lecture called “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood”.
He got his hosting start on The Movie Channel, Showtime’s cheaper cable sibling, and was largely forced to pick from their often sub-par catalogue of films. (As I understand it, the old cable channels would rent a package of films for the month, and they weren’t taking requests from the horror host.) This was probably the worst way to be a horror host, given he got one intro, one interstitial between features, and then a final outro, usually well after 1AM. The highlights were his interviews with the great ’80s scream queens like Michelle Bauer and Linnea Quigley, and some of the more conflicted starlets, like Kathy Shower. (Also fun are his interviews with Andy Sidaris, which are available on the “Girls, Guns and G-Strings” collection of his films.)
The low points were the zero star movies, usually the second feature, which Joe Bob would offer a free “Iron Joe Bob” t-shirt to anyone who could sit through, and who mailed him a plot summary. There was one particularly unwatchable film which had an off-the-charts breast count—it was basically an advertisement for the Goldfinger Strip Club in Florida, as I recall—that I never made it through.
The breast count. Joe Bob ends his reviews with a tally of drive-in movie highlights, e.g., “9 dead bodies, 4 breasts, 2 motor vehicle chases (with crash and fireball), scissors fu, wine bottle fu, 2 heads roll, 2 1/2 stars, Joe Bob says ‘check it out’.” He told the story of the breast count at some point this way: Interviewing Drive-In Movie Legend Roger Corman, he asked what predicted the success of a teen sex comedy. Completely dead-pan (and probably dead serious), Corman replies, “The number of breasts.” As a gag, Joe Bob put that into one of his reviews and when the right people got pissed off about it, it became a permanent fixture and part of the legend. (“That’s how you destroy the sacred cow,” he says in one interview.)
After the TMC show ended, he moved on to the basic cable channel TNT with “Monstervision”, “Joe Bob’s Hollywood Saturday Night” and “Joe Bob’s Summer School”. While I didn’t see many of these (because I loathe commercials), the format really benefited the “premiere movie critic of Grapevine, Texas”. In “The Warriors”, Walter Hill’s classic retelling of Anabasis, he traces the gang’s progress from Central Park to Coney Island by the trains and streets they take, while poking fun at the cast’s coordinated outfits and dancer’s bodies. He once hosted “Back to the Future II” and used the commercial breaks to explain the time-travel theory and argued that the Law of Entropy made the story impossible.
With Shudder, we get the best of both worlds: Uncut movies (mostly—the short shower scene from C.H.U.D. is weirdly redacted from Shudder’s cut) with breaks for commentary. Now, this means you shouldn’t necessarily watch these movies for the first time on “Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show”. The first Phantasm movie relies heavily on atmosphere. Same with The Changeling. The more police procedural-oriented films like Q: The Winged Serpent and C.H.U.D. are fine, and the great but very-hard-to-watch Castle Freak gets a bit easier to watch with the breaks where Joe Bob interviews the under-rated Barbara Crampton.
The first set of shows (last summer) was popular enough to tax Shudder’s streaming service, locking a lot of people out, suggesting that perhaps Briggs’ show should’ve been revived sooner. This was followed up with a Thanksgiving special and Christmas special (featuring the Phantasm movies). Besides a staggering amount of movie trivia and an impressive personal history in-and-around the movie and theatrical scenes of New York and L.A., the show features a fair amount of cultural commentary. (One rant, e.g., is on the removal of the swimsuit competition from the Miss America Pageant.)
His audience for the show, as always, is the crew (whom you can offer hear laughing) and “Darcy, The Mail Girl”, being played in this incarnation by the buxom Diana Prince with the right mix of sass and patience, and no small amount of (warranted) eye-rolls. A picture of the original (?) mail girl, Honey Gregory, is featured prominently behind the easy chair inside the trailer.
If you love drive-in horror, if you love the betamax era of video, and if you don’t take yourself too seriously, this is a must see. Moviegique says “check it out”.