Dead End Drive-In

Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford

While it certainly seems from news reports from TV and newspapers that crime is getting a lot worse, in actual fact statistics show that the crime rate has actually dropped significantly over the past few decades. Of course, that's not to say that crime has totally disappeared - it still exists, and more often than not the roots of it start when a person is a youth. I've actually gotten a lot of insight to the problem of troubled youths from motion pictures over the years. And with the hours I have spent watching troubled youths in motion pictures, there is one theme that more often than not comes up to explain why so many youths go off the right path and start going down a dangerous path. And that reason is that the youths' parents (or other major adult figures in their lives) aren't doing an adequate job with their influence. Let me give you some examples from the past. In the James Dean classic Rebel Without A Cause, Dean's teenaged character was in torment to a large degree since his parents didn't understand him. And in the camp classic High School Hellcats, the youthful heroine of the movie started to drift towards joining a gang because her parents were largely absent from her life. It's also the same story when you look at more recent troubled youth movies. The notorious Kids clearly showed that its troubled youths had parents seemingly completely out of their lives. And in the cult classic Over The Edge, the parents and most adult authority figures were seemingly completely ignorant that their children were stuck in an environment where there was little room to grow or be nurtured, so it came as no surprise that the youths would lash out in destructive ways towards adults and the community in general.

The question you may be thinking now is that if I know one of the key reasons why some youths turn to juvenile delinquency, what do I think should be done to turn it around. Well, probably one key way is one you guessed from the previous paragraph - get parents and other adult authority figures (from teachers to police people) more heavily into the lives of youths right from the start. But love and attention, I will admit, can only go so far with some troubled youths. There are some youths that are deeply troubled despite attentive parents and authority figures. What can be done with these particular youths? Well, one thing that works sometimes is to properly entice youths. For example, inner city school teacher LouAnne Johnson (who wrote her experiences in a book that was turned into the movie Dangerous Minds) used rap songs and chocolate bar rewards in her classes to get her students interested in learning things. But there are some youths that can't be turned around with proper encouragement or bribery. What can be done with those youths? Some will say that desperate times turn to desperate actions. One popular way parents with very disruptive children turn to are youth boot camps. These camps, as you probably know, are run with non stop discipline and work for the youths that participate in them. From what I have heard of these boot camps, the results seem to be mixed. Certainly some youths are turned around, whether it's from the extreme discipline or not wanting to do anything that will put them back in that environment. But I've also heard of some youths who have been killed in these camps from heatstroke or other causes from the extreme work they were put through.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that my discussion of troubled youths has been focused on troubled youths that live in North America. If I were to be asked as to what should be done with troubled youths coming from other places in the world, I would be pretty much stumped as to Dead End Drive-Income with an answer. Different countries have different perspectives, customs, and expectations. I would not know what would be best for those foreign youths and their cultures. So when I come across a foreign movie that deals with the problem of troubled youths, I pay attention in part to possibly learn something. That's not to say I always watch these movies with dead seriousness. When I came across Dead End Drive-In and learned its plot, I knew it wasn't to be taken too seriously. I prepared to be entertained, but a small part of me was alert to try and learn something about an Australian perspective on the problem of troubled youths. The movie takes place in Australia in the near future. The country has been struck by the one-two punch of a sagging economy and a severe rise in the crime rate, especially when it comes to crimes committed by youths. But both those things don't really concern a youth nicknamed "Crabs" (Manning). All he's concerned with is having a good time with his girlfriend Carmen (McCurry), and one night Crabs decides to take Carmen to a local drive-in for a show and a little intimacy. While Crabs and Carmen are enjoying themselves in their car, thieves steal two of their tires. When Crabs discovers this and realizing he and Carmen are stuck, he informs the owner of the drive-in, a man named Thompson (Whitford, Strictly Ballroom). Thompson promises to help Crabs and Carmen, but as the hours drag on, Crabs soon realize he and Carmen are stuck there. It turns out that the drive-in is run by the government as a sort of prison for youths they deem undesirable, where the youths are given a diet of free narcotics and trashy movies as well as food. Crabs doesn't like this truth one bit when he learns it, and he tries to escape several times, but fails each time. What's worse for Crabs is that not only are the other imprisoned youths happy with their situation and offer no help, but that Carmen shows signs of slowly being brainwashed like the other youths. Can Crabs not only save Carmen, but find a way to escape the drive-in?

I knew more or less what Dead End Drive-In was about before I actually watched it, and before sitting down to watch it, I have to confess there was one particular concern in my mind. That being that with the majority of the movie taking place in one fairly confined space, the filmmakers may have found themselves pressed to find ways to keep the audience's attention. But then I remembered movies like 12 Angry Men, which was spellbinding even though the director couldn't have had the jurors watch clips from trashy movies in that small room. So I knew it could be done. As it turns out, we don't get to see much of the trashy movies that are screened at this drive-in, though I was pleased to see some action footage from The Man From Hong Kong, a movie I've wanted to see for years. But there are other kinds of visuals in Dead End Drive-In that make what we see in the movie very attractive to the eye. Although the budget for this movie was reportedly only two and a half million Australian dollars, director Brian Trenchard-Smith (Turkey Shoot) made the movie look like a lot more was spent. The opening scenes on the streets of a futuristic Australia, and the subsequent scenes taking place in the drive-in, all have been decorated by the production designers to give a convincing portrait of a country that has not only been ravaged by various people who belong to a criminal element, but done so for an extended period of time. It's a dirty, junky, and weathered world where just by looking at it you can feel the apathy and contempt most of these characters now have for their country. While most of the movie does take place in a fairly confined space, Trenchard-Smith takes us to every corner of this location, from the main viewing area containing dozens of damaged cars to the graffiti-covered drive-in diner where the residents get their meals. With every viewpoint of this location covered and well trashed by the filmmakers, we do feel that this small corner all too well represents a crumbling world.

There are other visuals in Dead End Drive-In that not only make this world come alive, but make the movie a visual feast. For example, the cinematography by Paul Murphy (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie) has some of the best photography I have seen in a movie for quite some time. Though most of the movie takes place at night (or in darkened interiors), Murphy all the same makes everything look crisp and vibrant. Another kind of visual that gets the audience's attention are the action moments. Actually, there aren't that many action scenes, but the little there are happen to be pretty well done, from the climactic chase sequence to an earlier moment where Crabs gets into a lengthy fight with another drive-in resident. These action moments work for two reasons, the first being that they are directed to come across as pretty realistic; you really sense the participants are struggling, and as a result some genuine excitement is generated. Another reason the action scenes work very well is that the participant who is in all these action moments - the character of Crabs - comes across as a pretty likable guy. He seems pretty smart and resourceful, and his determination to not conform and try instead to escape will win you over and have you cheering for him as he gets into action that risks his life. Certainly, the performance of Crabs by actor Ned Manning contributes to making the character one that the audience will like. Manning does very well, enough to make you overlook the fact that he is clearly too old to be playing a youth (Manning was thirty-six years old when he appeared in this movie.)

Even if you are unable to overlook the fact that Manning is too old to be playing his role, you would probably agree that that fact is insignificant next to some problems with other characters in Dead End Drive-In. For example, there is the poor construction of Crabs' girlfriend Carmen. Her first appearance is abrupt, and we subsequently learn practically nothing about her save for the fact that she is quickly brainwashed to accepting her fate with the statement, "It's all we've got!" It's not surprising that eventually the movie pretty much forgets about her. Then there is the character of Thompson. Initially, there is the interest that the character doesn't seem to be a very evil guy despite running this drive-in prison. But eventually it becomes clear that this different path was a mistake; a movie like this really needs a strong villain to not only represent this oppressive world, but to provide a clear obstacle for the protagonist to fight against. But the script for Dead End Drive-In didn't just need work with the supporting characters, but also the story itself. There are a number of unanswered questions throughout the movie, some of them including how no one from the outside has heard of this prison drive-in... that the drive-in apparently lets in "respectable" citizens to watch movies and leave freely... and why everyone from Thompson to the drive-in inmates keep the truth from Crabs and Carmen for such a long time. Despite these and a few other problems with the script, I think Dead End Drive-In is still a worthy B movie. It has a good amount of eye candy that never loses its sweet taste before the ending, and while the script could have used more work, it does tell a fairly fast-paced story that never gets boring. So in the spirit of drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, I say: Check it out.

(Posted May 24, 2020)

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See also: Escape From El Diablo, High School Hellcats, Hot Summer