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Authors: Illeana Douglas

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BOOK: I Blame Dennis Hopper
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I thought I was going to be sick. I jumped out of the car and just started running. I was scared to death; I just wanted to go home. I started frantically looking in cars for someone I knew. I couldn't find anyone, and I could hear
Burnt Offerings
playing as I made my way through the cars, that horrible voice of Oliver Reed following me.

At one end of the drive-in, near some pine trees, there were some swings. “I'll meet you at the swings” was code because the swings were a kind of lovers' lane. When it was late, you hoped that the person driving you home wasn't at the swings, but I headed over there anyway looking for Molly or any other familiar face. I was at the swings seeing if I recognized anyone when I suddenly noticed the strangest thing. Just past where the swings met the forest I saw an empty wooden chair, like an old saloon chair. Next to it was a large popcorn box and some food wrappers. It seemed really creepy all of a sudden to see this completely empty chair in the middle of the trees—ominously lighted from
Burnt Offerings
. Who was sitting there? Was it a man? Was it a bear? Did whoever it was carry a chair through the forest in the dark, then climb over a fence, just to see a free movie? I mean, who would do something like that? Obviously someone just like me, but …

I was still staring at the empty chair in the forest when a car pulled up beside me. It was a wood-paneled station wagon. A lot of my friends' parents had station wagons, so at first I thought it might be one of them looking for one of their kids, which happened all the time. It wasn't. It was a slightly older guy. I can't really describe him, but I will always remember his voice, because he sounded sort of like the character actor Dabney Coleman. It was a voice with authority, completely trusting and calm. He said, “You look lost. You OK? You need help?”

“No,” I said, “I'm just looking for my friends…”

“Oh, you by yourself?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

There was nothing unusual about his asking me if I was alone. Of course he would want to be helpful. You met all sorts of interesting people at the drive-in. The light from
Burnt Offerings
was illuminating that weird empty chair, and again I was wondering, Where had all my friends gone?

I was wearing a pink tube top. For a second I thought I caught the guy glance at my chest, but that was impossible. I thought that I was just being self-conscious because I was a little busty. Maybe it was because he was a grown-up, or maybe because I was still shaken up by the movie, but for some reason, I kept talking to him. He was talking about
Burnt Offerings
, saying he didn't like it, so he was leaving. “Just trash,” he said, “I'm heading out. You need a lift?” I didn't answer him, because I was still staring, fascinated by the empty chair in the forest, when he reached across the seat, and offered me—I'm not kidding—a large supply of his candy. “Would you look at this?” he said. “I bought all this candy, and now it's going to go to waste.”

I have replayed the next moment many times in my mind, and it never fails to give me the shivers. He was holding out his cardboard tray with all the candy in it, and I started to lean in to the car to get a better look at what was there. In that second while I contemplated whether or not I was going to take his candy, he grabbed my forearm and tried to pull me into the car. It happened so quickly. Just about three seconds of sheer terror, but just as quickly I was able to pull free and get away. I will never forget the slap of his hand on my forearm as he tried to pull me into the car—or the angry sound his arm made as it slammed against the car door as I broke free and started running. I did not look back. I was sure he was right behind me, getting ready to drag me back to his car. I ran toward the familiar light of the burger stand. To my relief I finally saw one of my friends and tearfully told her what had happened. Everyone was pretty shaken up. I mean the drive-in was a dive, but things like that just didn't happen. It had always been a pretty safe place. Word spread and a posse of grown-ups set out looking for the wood-paneled station wagon, but no one could find it. About a week later, the State Police came to our house to interview me because another girl my age had described seeing the same paneled station wagon following her at the drive-in. Whoever it was, they never caught him, and life went on. Dusk till dawn.

But I wondered. Was he the guy in the empty chair? I imagined his sitting near the swings watching kids as they made out, then preying on innocent young girls—girls who were probably a little too young to be wearing tube tops. The drive–in was never the same for me after that. I would see that empty chair now and again, alone in the forest. I never once saw a person sitting in it, though.

By the late '70s and early '80s the movies at the drive-in were pretty much all cheap and sleazy stuff. Who knew the grainy images I was subjected to would later be heralded by Quentin Tarantino as grindhouse classics! Those dark movies fit with some equally gruesome dates. I think I saw every horror “classic” that is bandied about at the drive-in while on a date of some kind.
It's Alive
.
Basket Case
.
Squirm
.
Sssssss
.
Sisters
.
I Spit on Your Grave
. One stands out, because I had recurring nightmares about it. The plot revolves around a leech-like parasite that infects you and makes you want to have sex with everyone while red goop comes out of your mouth. Two scenes are seared into my memory. In one, a leech swims inside a girl who may or may not be masturbating while she is taking a bath. The other one is an orgy scene in which a sex-crazed father offers his daughter to another man by saying, “This is my daughter Vanessa. You'll like Vanessa. I do,” and then starts having sex with her first!

I was in a car with a boy and he took that as a cue to do the same. I made him drive me home immediately. For years, I remembered it as the most disturbing movie I ever saw, and for years—because we didn't have Internet back then—I didn't even know the name of it! One night, many years later, I was with Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma describing this absolutely vile film I had been subjected to as a child at the drive-in. I was getting to the orgy and the red goop, and they started to scream “
THEY CAME FROM WITHIN
!!” They were absolutely delighted that I had seen it, extolling it for several minutes as “a classic,” and went on to tell me it was the “commercial” debut of director David Cronenberg, whom I had just met on the set of
To Die For
. For those of you who love red goop, leeches, and incestuous orgy scenes, the movie is also known as
Shivers
. It is my deepest regret that I didn't know that he had directed
They Came From Within
at the time, because I would have had just one question for him: “Mr. Cronenberg, why?”

The last movie I ever saw at the drive-in was
Motel Hell,
in 1980. Like my first drive-in movie,
Romeo and Juliet
, it also was centered on a short-lived, doomed romance. I had met a boy named Henry in history class. He was a little older than I, from a wealthy family, but he thought I was funny and he asked me out on a few dates. Soon enough we were going steady. I was thrilled, until he asked me to the drive-in. We had never done anything more than kiss, and I was a little nervous about what “going to the drive-in” with a boy meant. I reluctantly agreed to go, convincing myself that he was a nice boy from a good family and certainly wouldn't expect anything more from me beyond watching a good R-rated thriller! We were watching
Motel Hell,
and it was, again, sometime between dusk and dawn, and surprise, surprise, Henry suddenly wanted to do more than just watch the movie. I was very disappointed, because I'm a big Rory Calhoun fan, and I love movies about making meat products out of human beings. But there I was, trying to make some sense of the plot, and Henry kept trying to put his hand down my pants.

I kept squirming and saying “C'mon, I want to watch the movie,” which, when the movie is
Motel Hell
, is kind of lame, but it's all I had. He kept trying. Back then, the teenage girl's version of “I have a headache” was to tell a guy you have your period, so I said, “Henry, I'm sorry, I have my period,” and that put an end to it. He looked bored after that and started talking about his blue Corvette. I had to stop watching the movie and pretend I was interested in his blue Corvette. Basically, Henry ruined
Motel Hell
for me.

In the weeks before our drive-in date, Henry had kept telling me about the new car his dad was buying him, which was the aforementioned Corvette. Back then it seemed fairly interesting. He showed me countless pictures of it, describing it in loving detail. At the drive-in, when he made me stop watching
Motel Hell
, he said, “Pretty soon I won't have to be driving my parents' car. I'll have my blue Corvette.” It was the symbol of his being a wealthy kid. His father could simply order him a Corvette. We left the drive-in way before dawn, and he talked about his stupid Corvette the entire drive home. A week or so later Henry called me, very excited to tell me that his blue Corvette had arrived, and, true to his word, he asked if I wanted to go for a spin. I was thrilled. My mother was making dinner, and I threw on my denim jacket and told her that Henry was taking me for a drive in his brand-new car. Even my mother had heard about this stupid blue Corvette. We were all waiting for it. My mom—bless her heart—was then driving another poormobile, a burnt-orange Chevy Chevette.

Henry pulled up in the car, he honked the horn, and it was a beauty. Baby blue. Lots of chrome. Not my kind of car—I don't really like Corvettes—but I could appreciate the artistry. He finally finished stroking and petting the car, I jumped in, and we headed down the driveway and out onto the road. He was driving really slowly, like 20 miles an hour, and I shouted, “C'mon, let's put the pedal to the metal!”

“I don't want a wreck,” he said. “She's brand new.”

All of a sudden, I felt really gauche.

“Sure,” I said.

Henry looked really handsome driving his car like a senior citizen down the road. He was beaming, and I started thinking about what had happened—or rather, what had not happened—at the drive-in. Maybe I was a little uptight? I mean, I didn't want to lose a nice boy like Henry. I should probably let him get to second base in his new Corvette. I looked at Henry and smiled, moving closer to him.

Henry was driving, staring at the road, going ever so slowly, when he said, “What do you think of Gerry Haines?” I was completely thrown. She was the kind of girl I used to see Henry with before we started dating. She was kind of horsey-looking, wealthy, a complete snob, and a bully.

A week before, she had pushed me against my locker and said, “You look like a frog. Ribbit. Ribbit.” Then she gave me this smug look and said, “Your family's poor, and you're ugly, and you're not half good enough to date Henry. You'll see.” It gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. We had driven maybe a hundred feet and he gushed, “She's beautiful, isn't she?”

“Yes,” I said. “It's a great ride.”

“Not the car, doofus. Gerry Haines!”

Then he blurted out, “I'm in love with Gerry Haines, and I want to break up with you.” Henry seemed to feel better after he got that off his chest. He even accelerated to a cool thirty-five miles per hour. I was speechless, and we drove in silence until we got to the end of the street—where, instead of heading out to the highway, Henry started to turn the car around. He turned it around so carefully, so slowly, like a really good driver. Not at all like those crazy dangerous rides I had taken with my grandfather. But this drive was much scarier, because I realized he was driving me home. My romance had been doomed, just as Gerry had predicted. My ride was over. Henry dropped me off in front of my house and said, “We'll still be friends.” Of course, he never spoke to me again.

Was my fascination with doomed love planted in me the night I saw
Romeo and Juliet
at the Fairlee Drive-In? Or maybe, as in
They Came From Within
, it had snuck up inside me while I was taking a bath and planted itself like a leech. Maybe I would always be chasing that same doomed love. Faster and faster, never arriving, but never driving fast enough to get away from it. Drive-ins are no longer here, but that's what dreams are for. I can always remember my grandfather's swinging open the door of his '59 Mercedes that summer night in Vermont and saying, “Hop in, Peaches. Let's go for a ride.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

Camelot

My first attempt at a head shot, age fifteen. Obviously I hadn't realized that the MGM studio system had collapsed. Still, it launched my career as a cocktail waitress.

“Don't let it be forgot / That there was once a spot / For one brief shining moment that was known / As Camelot.” Those are the famous words King Arthur utters to an idealistic young boy about the magical kingdom of Camelot.

BOOK: I Blame Dennis Hopper
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