Scares Under The Stars: Taking In The Drive-In Massacre

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 2, 2014 9:10PM

Chicago is a great movie town, but you need to leave the city limits to take in the vanishing treat that is the drive-in movie experience. Many did exactly that last weekend, taking a short road trip northwest for the Drive-In Massacre at the McHenry Outdoor Theater.

Presented by Terror in the Aisles, this year’s drive-in marathon was both a step forward and a step back from last year’s edition. Thanks to winning a new digital projection system through a contest sponsored by Honda last year, the McHenry Outdoor Theater was able to remain open. Though no drive-in is ideal for projection—competing with the wide open night sky is tough—the difference was striking. Two of the movies on the triple bill (Return of the Living Dead and Creepshow) were shown via discs, and with the new projection system the resolution and brightness were immeasurably improved over last year’s presentation, when night scenes from Sleepaway Camp in 35mm were all but indecipherable.

But while the new 4K DCP version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (restored for its 40th anniversary) looked superb, either display settings or the masking on the new projection system caused problems for the movies presented via disc, with actors’ heads cut off at the top of long shots in Return of the Living Dead, and some clever comic book captions cut off in Creepshow. Also, disc player menus showing on screen during transitions between films took away from some of the theatrical experience—a problem that would seem easy to solve with a monitor in the projection booth.

Also, except for a brief trailer and music video before the first feature and the legendary intermission countdown, the usual array of fun vintage trailers and other filmed novelties Terror in the Aisles brings to their events was missing. With huge collections of rare trailers available on disc, it doesn’t seem like the transition away from 35mm projection should have ended this fan-favorite attraction.

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Ghoulish artwork at a merch table at the McHenry Outdoor Theater.
Still, the features themselves provided plenty of entertainment. Return of the Living Dead remains a gleeful blast of gore-toon comedy horror. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those “problem classics” for me, with its brilliant art direction and sense of dread undone by a grating, seemingly unending soundscape of screams and thin, largely unlikable characters. Its influence on horror cinema is massive however, and even a non-convert like me can find some individual moments that resonate. While a lesser George Romero film, the horror anthology Creepshow has some fun segments, especially the last two, involving an ancient beast in a crate and an army of cockroaches assaulting E.G. Marshall.

And the drive-in experience is as much about the venue and crowd as the films. Happy genre buffs crammed into the tiny concessions lobby for fast food eats and more. Top draw for “more” was actress Linnea Quigley, whose naked graveyard dance in Return of the Living Dead made her a scream queen sex symbol in the 80s. She signed autographs and greeted fans, while other attendees browsed vendor tables full of t-shirts, artwork and collectible knickknacks.

Those who didn’t get enough scary movies at this drive-in can indulge in more (if they’re willing to travel further out to the boonies) at the Midway Drive-In in Sterling, Illinois on Sept. 20, when their Dusk to Dawn Horror Fest will include Phantasm, Dawn of the Dead, Cannibal Holocaust and another showing of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If your tastes run more toward vintage horror and you don’t mind possibly chilly fall temps, the McHenry Outdoor Theater will show the Universal classics Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Mummy on Oct. 24 & 25…the weekend just before Halloween.

Both the McHenry Outdoor Theater and the Midway Drive-In deserve kudos from local horror buffs for these efforts. Still, it’s hard not to be jealous of those who live near Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, or have the time and money to head out there Sept. 12 & 13, for the upcoming Drive-In Super-Monster-Rama. If you’re a fan of retro fright flicks, check out this schedule and try not to salivate!