David Paul Baker’s horror film “Screen” begins with an old beat up film reel countdown followed by a faux 1972 news broadcast in which a local reporter from Cleveland, Oklahoma is giving the intro to a special report on what she call’s the “Halloween Drive-In Massacre”. Next a video title card over black informs us that it is 40 years later at the same drive-in. John Carpenter style music begins to play and we are treated to a series of video clips and stills depicting the aftermath of what appears to be another massacre. Video glitches and camera snapshots punctuate the sequence. Authorities wander through tall grass not unlike zombies from Night of the Living Dead. A single swing from a three seat A-Frame playset moves back and forth in the dead air. Seemingly dozens of people lay dead in their cars and a spacious RV. The camera also shows the long gutted and non-functioning remnants of the drive-in projector building, the video interference increasing in frequency and intensity as it does. Lastly we see the screen itself, standing in the heat of the Oklahoma day. Cut to the title card over black with video distortion.
My description of the opening two minutes of “Screen” do no justice to the creativity and care displayed by the director/writer/editor throughout. So many aspects of the movie work on so many levels, it is hard to accurately or evocatively communicate its virtues. It’s not unlike trying to describe the impromptu performance of a seasoned bar-room rock band, which is not a bad comparison for this low budget love letter to 70’s film and the drive-in culture.
The main plot centers on Lola, (Nicole Alonso) a young woman living with her alcoholic father. Through Facebook she reconnects with Carrie who is an old school friend, (Leslie Andrews). Carrie wants to visit the aforementioned drive-in on Halloween during the 40 year anniversary of the 1972 massacre. Lola is hesitant at first but after waking up to find her pathetic father passed out on the hall floor, she decides to take her dead brother’s gray primer covered Firebird and head out on the 300 mile road trip with Carrie.
It has been said that half of the job of directing is in casting well. Considering the fact that about 40 minutes of this 106 minute film is the journey to Cleveland, that axiom holds especially true. In essence, “Screen” is a 70’s road trip film, complete with muscle car, which means the weight of the movie rests on the believability and charisma of the two leads. Nicole Alonso shows great nuance as the brave-faced Lola who has taken some hard knocks from life without being completely beaten down, and Leslie Andrews seems born to play the goth party girl immersed in social media with a happy-go-lucky attitude while also harboring significant personal secrets. They have a natural chemistry together. So, when Carrie reveals her biggest secret, the moment brings real meaning and importance to their relationship. In fact, every single player’s performance in the movie was so natural that I often wondered how many people were actors or just someone they met while shooting. Even so, I was very impressed with the overall verisimilitude of the show. Having tried to direct non-actors before, I can attest to the fact that some of the most unnatural performances I’ve ever seen, came from people just trying to be themselves.
Soon after they reach the theater it becomes apparent that a sizeable crowd is forming to party on the anniversary of the tragic event. While the opening of the film has pretty much given away the end result of the evenings celebrations, it’s still interesting to watch the players take their place in the inevitable debacle. Various sorts of podcasters and reporters show up, Carrie begins hearing sounds emitting from a detached drive-in speaker, and of course, there’s the swingset, with the ghostly seat swaying in the airless heat of the evening. There’s also an underdeveloped plot involving a different kind of threat, that shall remain nameless, but I found it to be just enough to create a sense of uncertainty and dread, in the same way it would if I were actually there and only had limited personal exposure to the events. A few surprises follow, but overall it resolves the way you would expect, and ends in an unfortunately abrupt and somewhat unfulfilling manner. I suspect this was more to do with the limitations of time than creativity, since the film is so well crafted right up to the end credits. I just wanted a little more movie to wrap things up or put a bow on it. I wanted to love it from beginning to end.
But maybe the thing I loved the most was how the movie captures the actual feeling of being young, free and on the road, driving fast with the windows down in scorching weather, through rural areas where there’s more grass than concrete and abandoned drive-ins are left to become as much a part of their surroundings as the rocks and trees. Where you can hang out at dusk, sitting on the hood of your car, listening to singing crickets in the unmown grass mix with the sound of dogs barking and the occasional distant car traveling a remote gravel road, just waiting for the trailers to start on the giant outdoor screen.
And those bulky metal speakers. Yes, Mr. Baker, I do think I can hear the movie playing now, even without the wires attached.
Review by: Chris Young