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The Giant Gila Monster / The Wasp Woman: Drive-In Discs

Unless you're one the hardcore collectors of all-American genre trash cinema (we know you're out there), there are only two good ways to watch kitsch-horror cheapies like The Giant Gila Monster and The Wasp Woman. One is via Mystery Science Theater 3000. The other is with a group of your friends, assorted unhealthful beverages and snack items, and Elite Entertainment's series of "Drive-In Disc" DVDs. The appeal isn't specifically the movies themselves, here presented in double-feature form, but the bonus additions that give meaning to the term "drive-in disc." This 2001 release is Vol. 2 in the series (the first being The Screaming Skull / Attack of the Giant Leeches) and, frankly, it's hard to think of a better way for production houses to clean their basements of those old B- to Z-grade movies and send them out into the home video market. The movies are still perfectly awful, but that's part of their charm for those who care to look for it.

Take The Wasp Woman. Please. This 1960 feminine retooling of The Fly was director Roger Corman's final use of his venerable leading lady, Susan Cabot. Filmed the year after his Attack of the Giant Leeches, it also marks a bridge between Corman's schlockmeister period and his breakout work — his memorable and atmospheric adaptations of Poe stories that began in 1960 with The Fall of the House of Usher. Its plot is certainly a familiar formula. "A beautiful woman by day — a lusting queen wasp by night" goes the tagline. With the help of an unemployed scientist (Michael Mark), a cosmetics queen (Cabot) develops a youth formula from enzymes taken from wasps. Naturally she fails to anticipate the horrible side-effects, such as the increasing need for greater dosages, a desire to kill and eat her co-workers, and her transformation into a humanoid bug complete with buzzing sound, fuzzy wasp gloves, and bug-eyed monster headpiece with antennae. It's poorly written, cheesily acted, low-budget, and completely camp, but because it's Corman it's a touch ahead of its ilk thanks to some clever lines and flavorful directing. Utterly ridiculous but lovable.

1959's The Giant Gila Monster, on the other hand, is just about as bad as it gets. It was written and directed by Ray Kellogg, a versatile actor and special-effects whiz who dabbled with directing a few times, most memorably with the dreadful (for other reasons) The Green Berets. The Giant Gila Monster commits the mortal sin of being dull. The titular menace is a lizard photographically enlarged to terrorize toy vehicles and miniature model buildings. Camp value is provided by a truckload of 1950s B-movie clichés and dreadful song breaks — "My Baby, She Rocks" and "The Gila Monster Crawl" among other "rock & roll hits" — by its lead, Don Sullivan, who through this movie rose from nothing to complete obscurity. Dullsville, daddy-o.

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So, how well does Elite Entertainment preserve these movies on DVD? Reasonably so, considering their age and the casual disregard the prints have no doubt received over the past four decades. The transfers are fine. Both movies are black-and-white and look good with an appropriate degree of flecks, scratches, and some uncertain framing, though with solid tonal contrast and clarity. They're in their original full-frame (1.33:1) aspect ratio.

Now, what makes this disc anything more than just another schlockfest? Elite's selling point for their Drive-In Discs series is the nostalgia-factor associated with the "drive-in movie experience," which may not mean much to anyone under 40 anymore, but it's still a hoot even if you've never made out in the front seat while a rubber monster crashes through a cardboard wall on a 100-foot screen in front of your windshield. You get not only these two movies, but also — this is the cool stuff — a fine vintage Betty Boop cartoon from before the blue-noses made the animators clean up her act, a splendid Max Fleischer "Popeye" cartoon, and the unique drive-in staples of Countdown Clock, Concession Stand Ads (including "Let's all go to the lobby" and the phallic Chilly Dilly, the refrigerated "personality pickle"), Coming Attractions, a cartoon sing-along of the National Anthem, a stern admonition from a Stodgy Paternal Figure that there should be no hanky-panky in this theater, a patriotic Intermission, and more.

A quick menu click brings it all to you in "the latest in LOW-FIDELITY technology ... DISTORTO Sound!" To recreate the drive-in experience, audio track #2 replicates the truly horrific quality of the famed drive-in window speaker. This 5.1 audio feature delivers the movie's sound signal only to the front left speaker of your system. Others ambient sounds — a car pulling into the spot next to you, people walking on the gravel drive, car doors slamming, crickets chirping, neighbors in nearby cars yukking it up MST3K-style, forgotten friends pounding on the inside lid of your trunk reminding you to let them out — come from the other speakers, including the side surrounds. As the label says, "You'll feel like you're really there!" Well, perhaps so if your couch smells funny. Hey, it's a fun gimmick and yeah it may wear thin after a while, but you have to salute the genius behind it.

A pull-out slip sheet contains a "bio" of a classic Cape Cod drive-in theater. Plus, for memorabilia collectors, there's an ad for The Drive-In exchange, "The largest selection of drive-in theater goodies from anywhere!" According to Elite Entertainment's site, www.elitedisc.com, "We anticipate the DRIVE-IN DISCS series to be a 15 volume set." Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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