The past few years have been tough on drive-in movie theater owners, who have been forced to chuck their 35 mm projectors in favor of newer digital models if they want to continue to feature the latest releases. The switch-over costs money — money that mom and pop venues open for business just four months of the year rarely have on hand.
According to Scott Dehn, who owns and operates the McHenry Outdoor Theater, a new projector costs $75,000. But it's not that simple. The updated technology requires air conditioning in the projection booth and new electrical work, which he will have to install. "And the booth also has to be really clean for the projector to work, which is complicated because a drive-in has a lot of dust that floats in and out," he said. Dehn estimates he'll need about $150,000 to make the switch.
If he doesn't, first-run features will be out of his reach because studios are phasing out 35 mm prints altogether. Not a big deal for multiplex chains with deep pockets; they've already abandoned celluloid and converted to the equivalent of a thumb drive. For small guys like Dehn, "It's adapt or go dark," he said.
Enter Rusty Nails, the Chicago-area curator of the marathon Terror in the Aisles horror movie events, who has programmed an all-night lineup of retro films screening Friday. Dehn is hoping to raise a few bucks at the screening, but he's realistic.
"What I really want is for people to vote for us on Project Drive-in (projectdrivein.com), which is sponsored by Honda," he said. "They're donating five digital projectors to the drive-ins that get the most votes." Need it be said that the McHenry is one of the few remaining drive-in movie theaters in Illinois?
The old 35 mm projector will come in handy for the horror films Nails has selected, including 1979's "Zombie" from Italian director Lucio Fulci, the 1983 cult classic slasher flick "Sleepaway Camp" and the 1987 horror-comedy "The Monster Squad," directed by Fred Dekker, who will be at the drive-in to introduce the film about group of mouthy kids who band together to fight old-school monsters: Dracula, the Mummy, Wolf Man and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.
"That movie was born of my misspent youth," Dekker said when I reached him at his home in Los Angeles. "I gravitated toward monsters early on, so, for me, many hours were spent watching the old Universal monster pictures from the '30s and '40s."
He was also partial to old black-and-white comedies. "When I discovered that Abbott and Costello had made a movie with the Universal monsters, which was 'Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein' (from 1948), oh my God, I couldn't believe it, mostly because they were the real monsters and they were treated as though it was another entry in the monster canon. And just as a side note, 'Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein' is the only other movie besides 'Dracula' in which Bela Lugosi plays the role of Dracula, which is pretty freaking cool. You've got the real Dracula, you've the real Wolf Man, the real monsters."
Dekker wrote the script with his college friend Shane Black, who went on to become a top screenwriter of action films ("Lethal Weapon") as well as, oh, yeah, the writer and director of one of the year's top-grossing films, "Iron Man 3."
Here's how Dekker described his initial idea for the film: "I wanted to do a movie that was the Little Rascals-meet-the-Universal monsters."
"The Creature and the Wolf Man (characters) were owned by Universal," Dekker said. "I don't know how we got away with that without getting sued. I think it was that Universal didn't really appreciate their library.
"In fact, we took the script to Universal because I wanted to use the original Jack Pierce makeup designs. I wanted them to look just like they did in the '40s. (Pierce created the makeup for Boris Karloff, among others.) At the time, Universal said, 'We don't think there's any traction with these characters. We don't think this library is worth anything.'"
Dekker brought up the comparisons to the Steven Spielberg production "The Goonies," which follows a similar outline and came out two years earlier. It's become something of an '80s touchstone. "The Monster Squad" is far less well-known, but it is also a intriguing politically incorrect artifact.
"We have a 6-year-old saying (an expletive); a 10-year-old with a 12-gauge shotgun, who fires it; a 12-year-old who smokes cigarettes," he said. "These are things that would absolutely not get past the first draft of a script now."
So why is "The Goonies" the movie more people know? "The truth of the matter is that 'Goonies' was a Warner Bros. movie," Dekker said, "so part of the reason that people love it so much is that it sort of stayed in the public eye because of the Time-Warner conglomerate." In other words, it became a cable staple.
"And 'Monster Squad' sort of ended up in the ghetto of VHS tapes in the back of dusty video stores. It also showed up on cable in a pan-and-scan version, but it never reached the audience from the get-go that something like a major studio picture would."
At the drive-in Friday, the film will reach as many people as the lot will hold.
"The Monster Squad" screens 9:30 p.m. Friday (along with three more features as well as vintage trailers) at the McHenry Outdoor Theater, 1510 Chapel Hill Road, McHenry. Go to facebook.com/terrorintheaisles or goldenagecinemas.com. More info about Project Drive-In can be found at projectdrivein.com. To vote for the McHenry, text "VOTE111" to 444999.
Miley Cyrus' performance at the VMAs may have sparked debate about white singers appropriating black culture, but that kind cross-pollination has been going on for years. The documentary "Born in Chicago" takes a look at influential bluesmen of the 1960s — Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon — who mentored a generation of young white musicians. The film screens Tuesday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema as part of the Midwest Independent Film Festival's month series of events. Director John Anderson will lead a post-show discussion. Go to midwestfilm.com.
Dust bowl gothic
Chicago playwright and actor Tracy Letts, whose adaptation of his Pulitzer-winning play "August: Osage County" debuts next month on a wave of Oscar fever at the Toronto International Film Festival, reportedly is in talks to adapt a new version of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," originally made into the 1940 John Ford film starring Henry Fonda. Letts also has a recurring role on Season 3 of the Showtime series "Homeland," which returns Sept. 29.