*Originally published: Bainbridge Island Review, Aug. 2018
Though fewer drive-in theaters dot the landscape these days than in summers past, their primary product, the double bill, remains a good weather fixture in America’s pop culture collective conscience. There’s just something timeless, and truly American, about the idea of a whole night of entertainment in one location for the price of a single movie (and you never have to get up!).
There are even distinct separate parts to the celluloid ceremony, like a kind of movie mass: previews, the first show, intermission, more previews, the second show, amen. All rise.
I love a well paired double feature and spend, admittedly, too much time considering and choosing candidates. Lying in bed at night, while others are counting sheep, or making their way through a few pages of this or that book, trying to sneak up on sleep, I’m starring into the darkness wondering which two non-“Death Wish” performances best encapsulate the extremes of the very, very wide quality spectrum that is Charles Bronson’s inconsistent career? What order should they be shown in?
These are the things that keep me up at night.
You, however, can now benefit from my obsessive consideration. Here are five movie pairings I predict will go perfectly together, like popcorn and melted butter — or summertime and the drive-in.
Warning: There be spoilers ahead.
1. Undercover Trouble Double Feature:
‘To Live and Die in L.A.’” (1985) & ‘Cruising’ (1980)
The blurring of lines for a troubled undercover cop is a tried-and-true movie concept as delightfully familiar as will-they-won’t-they rom-coms (they will — almost always, but more on that later), and these two, both directed by William “The Exorcist” Friedkin, are some of the best of the breed.
“To Live and Die in L.A.” stars William Petersen as a United States Secret Service agent working as a counterfeit investigator in the City of Angels, hot on the trail of master counterfeiter/art-loving psychopath Willem Dafoe. When his partner gets killed, the roguish Petersen, who vows revenge no matter the means, is paired with straight-laced, by-the-book John Pankow.
A scheme develops wherein the two agents engage Dafoe, pretending to be bankers looking to hire him to make funny money. But the trouble really begins when, to get the startup cash, they themselves commit a serious crime. They quickly find themselves in over their heads, stuck between bad guys and their fellow enforcers of the law, with no easy way out.
Ebert gave it four out of four stars upon release, and even two decades later The Digital Fix called it “A sun-bleached study in corruption and soul-destroying brutality.”
“Cruising” is the kind of movie that would never get made today, for better or worse. It follows Al Pacino as an undercover NYPD cop on the trail of a serial killer targeting gay men, particularly those associated with the fetish/leather scene of the late ’70s.
It’s a hard watch at times, but a fascinating fever dream of a film. It was poorly received by critics, but performed OK at the box office, though the shooting itself and promotional events were dogged relentlessly by gay rights protesters who believed the film to be homophobic.
They’re weren’t totally wrong, honestly, but opinions about the movie (and its very strange closing scene) have only improved with time. Overall, it’s a fascinating cinematic relic of a time when Hollywood seemed somehow simultaneously much more and even less progressive than today.
*Alternate choice: For decidedly lighter fare, substitute “Point Break” (1991) for the second feature. It’s hard to hate life after watching that flick.
“Back off, Warchild. Seriously.”
2. When Animals Attack Double Feature:
‘Deep Blue Sea’ (1999) & ‘Anaconda’ (1997)
Killer animal features say summer. Since “Jaws” came along in June of 1975 and changed the game forever, Americans have known that with the pleasures of fun and sun comes the very real possibility we might get devoured.
These two creature features, both starring aquatic-based man-eaters, are perfect together. They were first combined in my mind after reading comedian Patton Oswalt’s book “Silver Screen Fiend,” and the guy’s got a point: Both have at least a few genuinely creepy moments, surprisingly splendid special effects, likable enough casts, and random moments of meta-level sly genius.
Consider, in “Deep Blue Sea,” Sam Jackson’s, ahem, interrupted monologue? The scenes of uber-intelligent sharks stalking the water-filled passageways of the slowly sinking sea station? LL Cool J’s chef character is attacked in his half-flooded kitchen and hides in an oven — which the shark somehow turns on?
I could continue, but rest assured it’s delightful cheese, perfect for summer.
“Anaconda” is secretly pretty progressive. Two of the three leads are not white (the star is, in fact, the first Latin actress to earn over $1 million for a performance — not this one, admittedly); the good looking white leading man is taken out “Psycho”-style with much movie left to go; and the depiction of indigenous people and their legends is on the whole fairly respectful.
Jon Voight leans in so hard to his villainous role (and nonsensical accent) as to achieve Nicolas Cage-level hysteria — and that’s before we’re treated to a shot of him being eaten from inside the snake, an elastic tomb from which he’s promptly ejected, somehow still retaining the wherewithal to give JLo a (Lecherous? Conspiratorial? Playful?) wink.
Also, please note the great supporting performances by Owen Wilson, Jonathan Hyde and Danny “Machete” Trejo — three very different personalities not paired together nearly often enough.
I love this movie more than I should — more than anyone should, actually.
3. Retro Family Fun Double Feature
‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) & ‘Heavy Weights’ (1995)
Boy, they sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore … and maybe that’s a good thing?
These movies, both rated PG, show just how coddled kids today are … or maybe they show how far we’ve come in terms of what we’re willing to expose kids to. Either way, they are undeniable fun and, hard as it is believe upon a rewatch, both of these movies were legitimately aimed at children.
I must admit, I loved them. I was the right age for these two and have strong nostalgia fuzzies for them. However, viewed from 2018, they’re maybe not ideal kiddie fare (maybe PG-13, I think).
Alcoholism, seduction, infidelity, thinly veiled racism, murder and a legitimately frightening turn by Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom combine into a potentially traumatic mocktail of child cinema joy in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (an obvious precursor to the upcoming puppet-noir caper “The Happytime Murders”), which sees Bob Hoskins’s toon-hating PI paired with the titular bunny, who is wrongly accused of murdering the man who was caught playing pat-a-cake with his infamously voluptuous wife.
The animation is awesome and truly holds up, the characters are all fun, and there is a genuine mystery here to be solved, convoluted as it may be (but, then again, look at Chandler’s stuff).
Our culture has made obvious progress in terms of calling out body shaming, and for however far left we have to go we are clearly not the same country that saw the premiere of “Heavy Weights.” That is a good thing, obviously.
That being said, the idea of a bunch of overweight preteen boys at fat camp being terrorized by a creepy fitness-obsessed counselor (a startling effective performance by Ben Stiller), ultimately banding together to defeat him and finding confidence and camaraderie along the way, is objectively hilarious.
It’s basically “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” for chubby kids and it is a timely and especially appropriate watch in the summer time. Also, it’s full of great life lessons like, “Don’t put Twinkies on your pizza.”
4. Evil Within, Evil Without Double Feature
‘The Stuff’ (1985) & ‘Lifeforce’ (1985)
These are two of the least classifiable, most bizarre, utterly captivating horror films of the previous century. They both feature inhuman evils seeking to invade/feed on our bodies, one from outside our planet and one from within it.
Enough is never enough.
That’s the tagline for schlockmeister Larry Cohen’s satirical sci-fi horror movie “The Stuff,” though it could just as easily be our national motto, right? That’s intentional, as you’ll see.
In this film: A delicious mystery goo found bubbling up from the ground is marketed as a dessert and becomes a sensation. But The Stuff turns humans into zombie-like shells who only want to consume more of it, and quickly begins to take over the world.
It’s up to Michael Moriarty’s good old boy former G-Man, a remorseful advertising wiz, some random kid named Jason — and a cadre of heavily armed redneck militiamen led by Paul Sorvino to force America to wise up to the delicious danger.
This thing is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as seen through a fabulous ’80s filter. Themes of corporate greed, the duplicitous nature of advertising, the true powerlessness of federal regulations, and the dangers of group-think are explored in blinding neon wonderfulness.
“Lifeforce,” directed by Tobe “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Hooper is about vampires from outer space. Yes, it’s a movie about vampires from another planet who arrive in ’80s London in the form of three “specimens” saved from a strange adrift space ship by well-meaning astronauts.
Most conspicuous among the aliens is Mathilda May (credited as “Space Girl,” I’m not kidding), a kind of queen/leader who spends most of the movie silent and nude and draining the life force (get it?) out of every human she encounters, energy which is then transmitted (somehow) back to her waiting ship, which is moving ever closer to Earth with the claiming of each victim.
It’s an alien invasion movie like you’ve never seen before, made by one of the great horror heroes of American cinema.
5. Summer Loving Double Feature
‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ (1997) & ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ (1997)
Two quirky romances released in a big year for the genre (“The English Patient” won Best Picture) and are both well worth a rewatch.
“My Best Friend’s Wedding” rewrote the rom-com happy ending, so says the AV Club’s Caroline Siede in her awesome essay on the film.
I used to be a little embarrassed about how much I enjoyed this Julia Roberts-starring fun flick, but I’m seeing now my gut was right: There’s more to this one.
Roberts learns her longtime best friend (and one-time hookup) is about to marry Cameron Diaz and freaks out. To make things worse, she’s (of course) the maid of honor/honorary best man, dutifully going about her obligations, all the while scheming about how to stop the wedding.
Going against the advice of her friend/editor (Rupert Everett — easily the highlight of the movie), who she has somehow convinced to pretend to be her fiancé in a misguided attempt to make the groom-to-be jealous, she confesses her feelings — and nothing happens. It’s brilliant.
As Siede wrote, it’s “something unique … a deconstruction of the romantic comedy genre that’s also a fully functioning, agreeably mainstream version of one. On the one hand [it] embraces rom-com tropes … On the other, it raises questions about what would actually happen if someone were to engage in rom-com behavior in the real world.”
Better still, clocking in at a surprisingly breezy 104 minutes, the film adheres to the advice on Everett’s answering machine: “Brevity is the order of the day.”
“Grosse Pointe Blank” stars John Cusack as an assassin going through a quarter-life crisis, who coincidental finds his latest job takes him back to his hometown at exactly the same time his 10-year high school reunion is going on.
He then finds himself reluctantly attending, trying to win back his lost love (Minnie Driver) and dodging murder attempts by his competitors — including a perfectly gonzo Dan Aykroyd.
This movie is bizarre and in no way should be as lovable as it is. At one point, Cusack confesses to Driver that he only abandoned her on prom night 10 years ago to protect her from his homicidal urges, the same “moral flexibility” that soon after got him singled out of Army basic training and placed in a hit man training program. Yet, somehow, because it’s good ol’ Lloyd Dobler, her ultimately sort of kind of agreeing to marry this serial killer seems like an applause-worthy ending.
It’s a hilarious, weird movie about returning home and facing up to the challenges of adulthood, all set to a killer soundtrack: Violent Femmes, The Clash, David Bowie, Queen, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo & the Bunnymen, the list — like Cusack’s character’s confirmed kills, I’m afraid — goes on.