"It's never in focus!"
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The Texas Film Commission was founded in 1971 to "encourage the orderly development of the film, television, and multi-media production industry in Texas in order to utilize the state's vast array of natural, human, and economic resources which are uniquely suitable for that industry." And aside from helping to find a distributor for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the only film I'm familiar with that they actually helped to finance was Rod Amateau's Drive-In.
Looking to cash in on the success of America Graffiti (and to perhaps give disaster king, Irwin Allen, a poke in the eye), Amateau's film is a one day exposé on small town life somewhere in the Texas panhandle, focusing on an eclectic bunch of locals, whose separate plot threads finally collide at the drive-in for the premiere of Executive Pictures' Disaster '76.
Amateau does a fairly credible job of juggling these over-lapping story-lines -- teenage romance trying to blossom, a gang of thugs looking for some payback, a marriage proposal gone awry, and two boobs plotting to rob the evening box-office -- but he and cinematographer Robert Jessup (a protege of Larry Buchanan) do exponentially better when these subplots aren't getting in the way and the camera is allowed to just look around and soak up the atmosphere at the Alamo and, earlier, at the local roller rink.
Yeah, if the film has one definite weak spot, it's the script, which felt like a barely sketched outline scribbled on a napkin -- or, more appropriately, a flattened popcorn box. The blatant comedy relief isn't all that funny, and several running gags are beaten to death, buried, dug back up, and then beaten again, which kinda drowns out the instances when something actually works.
Onscreen, the only familiar faces, here, are Trey Wilson (Raising Arizona, Bull Durham) and Gary Cavagnaro (The Bad News Bears), but Lisa Lemole steals the movie as the prized belle who is fed up with her abusive boyfriend (the leader of the Widow Makers) and those who don't see who she is beyond her looks and reputation.
As for Disaster '76, the film within the film, what brief glimpses we do get, it's a total hoot and half. Basically throw Airport '75, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and JAWS in blender, and there you go -- though you might experience a retrospective cringe when the 747 crashes into a high rise, setting it on fire, trapping thousands, before the dam breaks and the giant shark gets involved. Drive-In also sports a killer country soundtrack (The Statler Brothers, George Jones and Tammy Wynette), but, just like with the running gags, several tracks are over-used and lose some luster the second time around.
Our local drive-in closed the summer before my 16th birthday some *gack* 30 years ago. And sadly, after a little digging, turns out The Alamo is also no longer with us. *sigh* So, what we have here, then, is a great rustic time capsule of the mid-1970s with a rural twist on things long gone, whose earnestness both endears and overcompensates for all of its amateur faults. Thus and so, even though all evidence shows Drive-In just isn't very good, I think it's just great.
Drive-In (1976) George Litto Productions :: Columbia Pictures / EP: George Litto / P: Alexandra Rose, Tamara Asseyev / AP: Harry N. Blum, Robert S. Bremson / D: Rod Amateau / W: Bob Peete / C: Robert C. Jessup / E: Bernard Caputo, Guy Scarpitta / M: Lee Osborne / S: Lisa Lemole, Glenn Morshower, Gary Lee Cavagnaro, Billy Milliken, Louis Zito, Gordon Hurst, Trey Wilson