It is 1990s indie night at The Last Drive-In, and we’re here to cover the fun, COVID-be-damned. The review/recap this week might be lacking a little of the usual flair due to my being an incubator for a virus I dodged for two years, but the drive-in never dies, and neither have I. Tonight we get a little bit of east vs. west 1990s indie horror with Head of the Family (1996) and Habit (1997).
Head of the Family (1996)
The first film of the night was the 1996 black comedy Head of the Family, directed by Charles Band. The film was written by Benjamin Carr based on a concept by Charles Band. Adolfo Bartoli served as the director of photography. The music was handled by Richard Band and Steven Morell, which Band’s contribution mostly being the theme. The film stars Blake Adams, Jacqueline Lovell, and Gordon Jennison Noice. The freaky family is played by J.W. Perra, Bob Schott, James Jones, and Alexandria Quinn.
The 1990s indie film follows two lovers, Loretta (Jaqueline Lovell) and Lance (Blake Adams), as they scheme to rid themselves of Loretta’s criminal husband, Howard (Gordon Jennison Noice). Lance soon discovers that the local family of weirdos, the Stackpools, have been secretly entrapping and murdering people under the direction of the head of the family, Myron (J.W. Perra). Lance then tries to manipulate Myron and his siblings (Bob Schott, James Jones, and Alexandria Quinn) into killing Howard, with disastrous results.
Head of the Family is one of the many bizarre, wonderful films out of Full Moon Entertainment, and for a low-budget mid-1990s film is a pretty quality production. The movie is hilarious and probably the most significant asset to why it succeeds. The concept is weird, and the play of a southern gothic-style crime story with a mutant freak family works surprisingly well. The plot of two lovers planning to rid themselves of a significant other getting in the way of their romance is old hat, but how often is it done with four superpowered siblings, one of which is a giant, wheelchair-bound head?
Except for a little bit of an info dump around the end of the first act (am I legally allowed to refer to “acts” in a Full Moon movie?) by Myron, the writing of the film is whip-smart with fun lines and great back and forth between wildly exaggerated personalities. Even the largely silent Stackpools – Otis, Wheeler, and Ernestina – have their character moments, albeit mostly in silence. The best material, however, comes from Myron’s pseudo-intellectualism contrasted with Lance’s southern-fried con-artist huckstering and Loretta’s scheming hellcattiness.
J.W. Perra is the strongest actor of the bunch, and his long career is an excellent reflection of that. He makes Myron the most fascinating part of the film and does a fantastic job making the smarmy intellectual character my favorite in the bunch. Jaqueline Lovell is also quite fun with her husky southern voice and oversexed energy. As much as I liked Blake Adams as Lance, I think Lovell held her own better against Perra, and their scene is hilarious and disgusting in equal measure.
The film’s pacing is mainly solid, though it does fumble in the third act as Myron’s overly-elaborate “Joan of Arc” stage show scene drags a bit before giving way to a hilariously hasty conclusion. There is just enough B-grade weirdness and trash to keep you going. If there isn’t some funny dialogue flying, there may be a man with a giant head or a gratuitous shot of full-frontal nudity. Sometimes there are all three at the same time. It’s wonderful.
Visually, the movie holds up quite well (sort of), and the forced perspective shots of Myron, the titular “head of the family,” are among the best achievements in the film. Forced perspective can work wonders, and though there are moments when the look can falter, Myron’s introduction is one of the best-looking scenes in the movie. Now, this is also a mid-1990s Full Moon Entertainment movie, so it can also look pretty cheap. I found myself ridiculously entertained by the wall of the bedroom set shaking violently when Otis pins Lance against the wall. Also, the diner location is one of the fakest diners I have ever seen. It’s marvelous.
My biggest gripe with the film may be the music. Full Moon movies tend to have somewhat zippy, bouncy scores that blur together and often are a tonal mismatch with the film itself. Head in the Family is already a farce – it doesn’t need to sound like one, too. There were moments during the movie when I heard the score and wondered if tumblers and acrobats were just off-screen, plying their trade.
Joe-Bobservations on Head of the Family
This week was a double header of special guests, pun-intended. Both guests perfectly encapsulated the 1990s indie theme. Charles Band himself dropped by the show to share some of the histories of Head of the Family, the Full Moon Entertainment story, and his thoughts on film in general. Of course, there were plenty of fabulous factoids about the movie, but the real focus was, justifiably, an extended conversation with Charles Band.
Any time Joe Bob sits down and talks with a producer, you have something gold. Charles Band is a director and writer, but he is also a producer, and that may be where his influence is most significant. The role of the producer is sometimes neglected by film writers when it really shouldn’t be. Like Uncle Lloydie, Charles Band has created something special with Full Moon that fills a niche that has become increasingly vital in this world of megacorporate film production. Joe Bob taking the time to sit and pick the brain of one of these producer powerhouses is an excellent opportunity for any filmmaker to learn a thing or two.
With that being said, if you thought Joe Bob Briggs was loquacious, Charles Band can give him a run for his bolo.
Final Thoughts on Head of the Family
As a whole, Head of the Family is a great choice for a Drive-In feature, especially as a 1990s indie. It may be a bit lighter on the blood, but there are breasts, and I would say the Stackpools are technically beasts. For what is a 1996 direct-to-video feature, I was pretty impressed with the quality, and it helps that Charles Band films tend to dig into the camp and low-budget nature and just run with them. With this movie, you get a little sex, and little violence, and a big head. Not bad for a Friday night.
Joe Bob Briggs gave Head of the Family four out of four stars. I think that assessment is pretty fair. This is just that sort of drive-in cheese we need these days. While the film was a lot of fun, some minor issues here and there, mostly the grating music, tell me to be a little more conservative with my score. I give Head of the Family four out of five Cthulhus.(4 / 5)
Best Line: “What’s the point of murdering your husband if you can’t fuck in a bed?” – Lorretta
The night’s second half featured the 1997 New York indie vampire film Habit. The release date has been listed as 1995 and 1997 across different databases, but most likely, I would say 1997 is the more accurate. If I mention a mid-1990s New York indie film, you might already understand where this movie goes, and you’d be correct. This one is bleak.
The film was written, directed, and edited by Larry Fessenden, who starred. Fessenden is joined by cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco and Geoffrey Kidde handles music duties. The other performers include Meredith Snaider, Aaron Beall, Patrician Coleman, and Heather Woodbury.
Habit is a variation on Dracula set in mid-1990s New York that follows Sam (Larry Fessenden), a disaffected alcoholic who has lost a father and his long-time girlfriend. At a friend’s Halloween party, he encounters the mysterious Anna (Meredith Snaider), who pulls him into a world of kinky sex which begins to unravel his life, much like his other addictions have before.
Habit is a bleak film but also is an excellent take on a vampire story. There are some direct references to Dracula here and there. Still, the film ultimately strikes out on its own to deliver a fascinating story about a man substituting one vice for another and the self-destruction that comes with it. The metaphor is obvious but very well executed, and the real horror doesn’t come from the vampire but rather from watching a man self-destruct and failing to do anything about it until it is too late. Sex with Anna is too exciting, too addictive, and even though Sam sees the toll it takes on his life and relationships, he cannot stop, even giving in during a struggle for life and death.
Fessenden is a fascinating character who has been a staple of the New York independent film scene for decades, and this is the work of a seasoned filmmaker. He is also a naturalistic performer, and while one may smirk at him writing and directing a film where he has sex with a manic-vampire-dream-girl, he conveys in his acting that it takes its toll. He has a presence, and at times I found myself drawing parallels to Jack Nicholson in his performance. The vaguely-autobiographical choices in characterization and performance lend a rawness to the film, which it benefits from.
The beautiful and seductive Anna is the most critical role in the film. For all the importance of Sam’s self-destructive choices, we need to buy into the idea that this blood-sucking woman is worth it, and Meredith Snaider, in her only film role, absolutely pulls it off. Snaider’s androgynous appearance and the voracious physicality of her performance establish the danger and temptation of Anna. She can go from charming to menacing at a moment’s notice, but it doesn’t matter to Sam or the audience. Everyone has a little kink, and Anna might be enough to draw it out of most viewers. What is a little bite in the throes of passion, anyway?
The acting choices of the supporting cast are generally excellent and nuanced, lending the film a realistic feel despite the supernatural theme. With that said, only one performance of the bunch frequently frustrated and confused me, and that was Aaron Beall as Nick, one of Sam’s friends. With that said, I do not feel like Beall did a poor job, but I do feel he was the wrong choice for the role, especially given an absurdly on-the-nose monologue in the film’s final act. The minute he showed up in the movie, I couldn’t help but say, “ah, so here is the theater kid.” If you know, you know.
The writing is strong as a whole with good dialogue, but the last act falters with one of the most overwritten monologues I’ve seen in recent memory. The film had done such an incredible job laying out its themes and metaphor using the language of cinema that to have Nick just rattle them out to a strung-out paranoid Sam also felt insulting to me. It may be that the hamhandedness of this moment colored my perspective on Beall’s acting. It was a real sour spot for me.
The film’s best moments may be those removed from New York City, however, as the friends go to a beach house and we get a glimpse of a better, more free Sam. A lovely scene on the shore gives us a look at what Sam could be if he could kick his habit. Still, Anna’s menace in the background, combined with the most traditional horror scene in the film, illustrates the underlying inescapability of his addiction.
The film’s aesthetics are particularly appealing to me. The sort of grungy, gothic New York City, devoid of the usual landmarks, looks fabulous. For being a film draped in shadows, the film handles light far better than billion-dollar franchises today. The film has such tremendous visual quality that while it is in color, I would love to see a black and white version. That might make it the ultimate 1990s indie vampire movie.
Joe-Bobservations on Habit
The second half of 1990s indie night featured an extended interview with the charming Larry Fessenden, who is just a cool, kind of weird dude. He has such a low-key and professional attitude to the craft for someone so admired and ingrained in the independent film scene in New York. Whereas Charles Band has a more slick and west coast sensibility to his cadence, Larry exudes an east coast vibe.
The interview segment was fantastic, and Fessenden was appropriately cagey regarding interpretations of his movies. Much hay is made about meaning and analysis when it comes to films like Habit. Hell, I’ve indulged in that in this very review. But there is something exhilarating about having the filmmaker commit to no answer and just encouraging whatever interpretations are out there.
Final Thoughts on Habit
Habit is on my shortlist of truly great vampire films. This 1990s indie film’s quality extends far past the novelty of the setting and theme. The performances are strong, and barring a significant misstep, the writing is excellent. I really found myself drawn in by the exploration of vampirism and addiction. In a genre as overstuffed as vampire movies, Habit is a standout.
Joe Bob Briggs gave Habit three and a half out of four stars. I think he could have bumped it up a half-star, personally. I loved it, but that third-act monologue harshed my buzz, as they said in the 1990s. I give Habit four out of five Cthulus.(4 / 5)
Best Line: “I suspect that the less you know about me, the longer you’ll stay interested.” – Anna
Haunted MTL Drive-In Totals
As always, we have the official Drive-In Totals from Shudder.
We also have my totals. As I was sick with COVID (and still am as I write this review), I do not have as many notes to work from. Hell, I didn’t even live-tweet the show this week, either.
- 5 Question Digressions
- 11 Utterances of “Thee-ate-er”
- 12 Puppet Master Movies
- 24 Speaking Roles over 4 Days (Head of the Family)
- 30 Full Moon scripts by Benjamin Carr
- Gratuitous Sets
- Gratuitous New York Grunge
- Gratuitous Talking Heads Parody
- Surprise Yuki
- Surprise Horniest Drive-In Yet
- Banking Joking
- Necrophilia Joking
- Slurp Fu
- Clipboard Fu
- Full Moon Fu
- Head Rolls
- Darcy Cosplay: Loretta
- John Brennan Cosplay: Otis
Episode Score for The Last Drive-In S4E9 – Head of the Family and Habit
I think that 1990s indie night was a compelling theme this week, and it certainly helped that I loved both films for very different reasons. There wasn’t much in the way of gimmicks in the host segments either. Not that gimmicks aren’t hilarious and welcome, but sometimes Joe Bob just chilling with the mutant fam, talking about movies, is welcome enough. The film had a sub-theme of east vs. west 1990s indie double feature that was also pretty impressive, and I think that Head of the Family and Habit were good representations of these two different spheres of film.
Combine two good movies with two great interviews with two independent film icons, and you have a good night at the drive-in. I didn’t even get into the Talking Heads parody in the night’s first half. I would give this episode of The Last Drive-In four and a half out of five Cthulhus.(4.5 / 5)
And that is it for us this week. Did you enjoy 1990s indie night? Let us know.