Joe Bob Briggs: Americana Ambassador

By Jeff Alexander

Film host Joe Bob Briggs has seen a resurgence of support thanks to his The Last Drive-In specials courtesy of Shudder. Originally conceived as a one-off, movie marathon in 2018 the overwhelming support has led to multiple seasons and holiday specials. Partnered with Diana Prince as ‘Darcy The Mail Girl’, the duo possessed the charisma, knowledge, and passion to satiate horror hounds and loyal, B-movie fans. With the unapologetic Briggs complemented by the deadpan comedy of Prince, The Last Drive-In continues preserving Americana’s movie tradition while saving oft-overlooked films from the cutting room floor.

“When Shudder reached out to me, I was thinking I wouldn’t hear back from them afterward, as networks tend to do that, but I figured ‘hey, at least listen to what they say and get a free lunch out of it’,” laughed Briggs.

Briggs is no stranger to network dealings. Having served as host on TMC’s Drive-In Theater beginning in’86, his sharp wit and parody of ‘high-brow critique’ ultimately led to a 10-year run until the network changed format and ended the show in 1996. Briggs further endeared himself to fans on TNT’s MonsterVision for 4 years, reminding executives of the genre’s timeless appeal.

“I continue reminding myself to stay sharp because horror fans are special and the films have value. The fans are very loyal and knowledgeable so it’s always a challenge to try and stay ahead of them,” he said.

Briggs is sure to tell you he is foremost a journalist and not exclusively a movie host. His dedication to the written word earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination for a 9/11 essay and his versatility led to a successful freelancing career that includes notable publications such as Rolling Stone, Playboy, and The Village Voice.

“I attended Vanderbilt College on a sports writing scholarship. We didn’t really care about jobs after graduation, I was just so enamored with writing and the college experience! We would take weird courses because we could, my roommate took Mandarin and I took Russian for 3 weeks! Vanderbilt was not easy academically but it made me a better writer, I guess I also needed to be more disciplined,” laughed Briggs.

Combining his love for the written word and his passion for cinema, Briggs penned several columns focusing on film, rife with his now trademark ‘redneck wit’. His extensive research and dedication to his craft led to a hefty portfolio of work, including syndicated columns published by The New York Times. With his newfound success on Shudder, Briggs’ work is now sought after by a new generation. As horror remains the genre that just won’t die, Briggs happily assumes the ambassador role within The Last Drive-In.

“I don’t think people under the age of 35 have the contempt of horror that you find in the older generations. The contempt is not as strong as before within the industry but for many years the films were clearly viewed as ‘second rate.’ I think within the last 20 years the big-budget remakes have given the original films more visibility, which is a positive thing but remember, it’s taken a long time to get where we are today. Looking back, hardworking individuals weren’t recognized within awards ceremonies. Horror films were never nominated. Sure, you would have sci-fi films talked about for special effects but geniuses like Tom Savini were overlooked,” remarked Briggs.

The onslaught of ‘80s horror films demanded attention and ultimately made their way into the mainstream. The decade is widely agreed upon as the genre’s most-successful thanks to now iconic characters of Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees. The rise of ‘slasher films’ proved that viewers craved more intensity and gore and studios quickly learned they could turn profits while cheaply satisfying such demands. Relying on mostly unknown actors and rookie directors, studios banked on strong opening weekends and marketing blitzes before relegating films to the bins as they moved on to the next title.

“Friday The 13th is a great example of studios experimenting. It was like a laboratory for Paramount! They would use untested actors and directors and see how it would go. There was no executive that would want to hitch their career to such a franchise. The first few proved very successful, which I think surprised everybody involved and only much later did the corporation begin to value it,” stated Briggs.

The meteoric rise of horror was also met with the obligatory backlash. Well-publicized protests of certain titles led to theaters pulling films while ‘advocacy groups’ scapegoated horror for contributing to teen mental health issues. The genre endured and received new life within the growing world of VHS. For Briggs, the unwarranted criticism provided fodder for his books and essays, but he continues to note that the genre’s biggest debate and criticism is from the community itself. Many argue if the genre is stagnant and continues to negatively stereotype teens and objectify women.

“I do think horror can be a feminist genre! You have to look mostly beneath the surface. There are certainly strong women leads in horror such as Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare On Elm Street and Amy Steel in Friday The 13th. I also think there are political themes within the genre. Look at Black Christmas. That film was released right after Roe V. Wade and depicted a pregnant woman character exploring her own choices. The slasher era was largely a male audience but the sympathy for the women characters was a focus for storylines. You have to take things movie by movie. Were there misogynist directors? Sure, but they got hammered for it. However, I don’t always understand the attacks on John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper,” stated Briggs.

Nostalgia can be a powerful force and has proved to be very beneficial for horror. International conventions remain well-attended and once idle actors have returned to the public eye while once forgotten and long buried films are resurrected thru festivals and new merchandising campaigns. For Briggs, he continues to show gratitude while also revisiting the genre thru a more discerning lens.

“Time allows us to take a step back and then return, perhaps with more knowledge. Looking at characters like Jason, perhaps he’s a puritan in a hockey mask that killed teens only because they veered off the moral compass. The previous boycotts of horror did have immediate impacts, like with Silent Night Deadly Night. The original company washed their hands of it but the boycott and subsequent re-release did benefit because it created a new demand for it, people wanted to access something they were previously denied. Boycotts can also kill a movie, Like I Spit On Your Grave but the video age saved it and countless other titles. This is how nostalgia can be a good thing, people craving a certain period of their lives and the movies are still available for people to rediscover and enjoy,” stated Briggs.

He added, “There’s just so much love that pours out of fans during conventions. There’s a bonding experience they’re reminded of from when they first saw a particular movie with someone and that connection can be enduring and energizing.”

As The Last Drive-In proves that Briggs can endear himself to a new generation of fans, ultimately earning Shudder unprecedented viewership, the domino effect has been nothing but positive for all companies that have continued creating and promoting within the horror community.  The original airing of The Last Drive-In was met with such strong support that Shudder’s server crashed! Impatient fans were calmed thanks to Prince’s social media prowess via Twitter, which is now a regular part of the program.

“She has always been a strong supporter of mine. She’s a very knowledgeable and successful horror blogger. When I told Shudder I wanted her for the mail girl role, I asked them if they were comfortable with her previous experiences in the x-rated film industry and they were fine with that. She’s always been very open about that. I think we work very well together,” said Briggs.

For Briggs, The Last Drive-In is also a vehicle to engage and inspire amateur filmmakers working to elevate their respective craft and perhaps take that next step into the industry. This Summer, Joe Bob’s Drive-In Jamboree will appear at Pennsylvania’s classic Mahoning Drive-In theater. The three-day festival will be an open call for short-film submissions. Additionally, Briggs and Prince will be doing a live format taping of The Last Drive-In.

“It’ll be the chance to show films made outside the system, so to speak, without using the traditional Hollywood type entities. We’re going to reproduce a taping of our show at the event just like we do it at Shudder, with live cameras rolling onstage and all. Drive-Ins are needed now more than ever, a place for people to share their passions. God bless the people that preserve them and keep ‘em going,” concluded Briggs.

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