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Carnage thrives in the open air

A scary drive-in film series is a Friday night hit in Hollywood. Honk if you love it.

September 05, 2008|Mindy Farabee | Times Staff Writer

They crept forth from across the city last Friday evening -- in Hummers, vintage convertibles and plain old Toyotas -- to huddle together at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood for its first ever scary drive-in movie series.

To kick off this 10-week resurrection of that once-ubiquitous L.A. experience, theater artistic director Amit Itelman unleashed "From Beyond," a lurid mid-'80s mad-scientist flick adapted from an H.P. Lovecraft short story about ill-advised experiments on the pineal gland. Itelman had scored a print of director Stuart Gordon's more fully fleshed-out version, complete with a detailed brain-munching sequence originally nixed by the MPAA.

"What I like about this movie is that Stuart treats the human body like Play-Doh," said Itelman, a 33-year-old San Francisco native who opened the Steve Allen four years ago as a place to mix and match carnies, stand-up comedians and live '20s-style jazz.

On that first night, the theater's parking lot was nearly sold out, with cars sprawled four lanes deep, despite little more than an e-mail blast in the way of advertising. It's a modest parking lot, though, holding a modest crowd of horror enthusiasts, drive-in fans and, of course, couples. Alec and Natalie Myers came up from Culver City to burrow beneath a red sleeping bag in the back seat of his '62 Corvair convertible. "She's never been to a drive-in," he said. "The last one I remember seeing was probably 25 years ago. My parents took me to a 'Blade Runner'-'Death Wish' double feature."

It was a night for open windows, the air uncharacteristically chewy with humidity, and laced with beer and smog. Viewers tuned car radios to a designated frequency; the soundtrack bubbled up from beneath dashboards and seemed to pool across the lot. With the theater situated on a residential street just around the corner from Hollywood Boulevard, headlights now and again danced across the wide white wall onto which Itelman projected not only "From Beyond" but also an introductory round-up of singing soft drinks, a stern-minded '50s-era patriarch with a zero-tolerance message for noisemakers, and a plea, set to a swinging '60s tune, for no public displays of affection.

There was also, of course, a full quota of previews, including one for the gem being shown this week: 1977's "Demon Seed." Starring Julie Christie, it's the story of "something more than human, more than a computer. It's a murderously intelligent, sensually self-programmed non-being," at least according to the trailer's voice-over.

Upcoming films include Andy Kaufman's first celluloid gig, the 1976 cultists-on-a-rampage "God Told Me To" (Sept. 12), and 1977's baroquely violent "Suspiria," perhaps Italian gore maestro Dario Argento's most famous effort (Oct. 24). Though there's really no reason to at any point involve children in this sordid mess, mature viewers can take a mid-series break from the vivid carnage with the Audrey Hepburn 1967 thriller "Wait Until Dark" on Sept. 19 or the more psychological 1960 British sci-fi tale of mutant tykes in "Village of the Damned" the following week. It all culminates with a Halloween night full of "Blood Sucking Freaks" from 1976.

"This isn't a list of my favorite horror movies, or the best horror movies," Itelman said. "These are the movies that, to me, embody the drive-in experience." By nature summoning a little rowdier crowd -- prone to horn-honking, light-flashing approval as well as very vocal opinions -- drive-ins have always been about more than the movies. "They have those anti-PDA announcements for a reason," said Los Feliz denizen Tanya Ramirez, who added that, as a smoker, she prefers drive-ins for obvious reasons.

For Itelman, though, the pre-CGI horror show he's put together is meant to treat audiences to an experience tangibly, inimitably stamped with the human imagination. "My fondest memories of going to the [Bay Area] Burlingame drive-in, which is now demolished, was of watching horror movies that were lowbrow yet still delivered great filmic experiences," he said. "Cheap, gory horror films can be just background fodder for smoking weed, or sometimes they can . . . excel within their budgetary boundaries, and the homemade quality and cheap film stock actually help to create a frightening atmosphere. That era has a certain tone that's lost to modern horror movies."

Continuing with the labor-of-love theme, Itelman said it's fine to bring your own concessions to his drive-in, though if you want to buy popcorn, it runs $2, just like the old-school Cokes from Mexico. Getting in, that's five bucks. "I just wanna cover expenses, really," he explained. "Give people a chance to make out in their car without getting a 50-buck ticket on Mulholland Drive."

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