Film critic and horror movie host Joe Bob Briggs is having a renaissance.
The Dallas-based writer rose to national prominence as one of the only critics willing to review the seedy genre movies that ran only at the city grindhouses and rural drive-in theaters. The kind of movies his friend Roger Corman insisted not be called B-movies, because they’re not secondary to the A-pictures. They’re exploitation films. Corman’s programmatic formula for exploitation movie success inspired Briggs’ signature Drive-In Totals, where he breaks a movie down by enumerating the number of killings, nude scenes, car chases, dead bodies, and rolling heads.
Briggs moved into TV, putting his own spin on the now mostly forgotten art of horror movie hosting as created by Shock Theater’s John Zacherle. First for the Movie Channel, then most memorably on TNT’s late-night cable staple Monstervision, he introduced the weirdest and wooliest edited-for-TV sleaze (and a few real classics), then popped in between commercial breaks for trivia, commentary, and occasionally to answer the surprising number of letters written by his many fans serving time in prison.
Under his real name, John Bloom, he was one of the first Daily Show correspondents with the recurring evangelical TV breakdown “God Stuff.” And you might also remember him as the clueless pit boss whose bumbling starts the whole empire to crumble in Martin Scorcese’s Casino.
But Joe Bob is best known for sitting in his trademark recliner, beer in hand, dryly drawling film commentary that turns academic analysis into a good-humored front-porch chat. After over a decade away from TV, he’s back in the chair, this summer hosting a 13-movie marathon for streaming service Shudder that was so popular it crashed the website’s servers. He’s back hosting two more movie marathons for Shudder in 2018, and he’s also touring the country with a live show, How Rednecks Saved Hollywood. Briggs digs deep into the archive for hundreds of stills and film clips to trace the evolution—or lack thereof—of the redneck as a character type in American cinema.
We caught up with Joe Bob to talk about the pitfalls of mainstream film, his upcoming live show at the Parkway Theater, and why Michael Eisner probably never bragged about helping to produce the Ernest movies.
City Pages: You’ve written and talked a lot about your favorite exploitations films. What are some of your favorite non-exploitation films?
Joe Bob Briggs: This Is Spinal Tap I consider one of the greatest comedies ever made. Beckett, with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. It’s one of those great British movies. I could watch it again and again. Lawrence of Arabia, another great British film.
When I first started writing about film, the main thing I did not like was Hollywood mainstream films. I liked really obscure foreign films and then I liked the exploitation films that only appeared at the drive-in.
CP: What do you dislike about mainstream movies?
JBB: Their slickness, the three-act formula, the up endings, the movie-star system. It’s a recipe for boredom. Maybe the first two or three Tom Cruise movies are great and then it’s just a Tom Cruise movie, or a Dudley Moore movie, or a Bruce Willis movie. They just do the same thing over and over again.
But a lot of the exploitation films were genuinely inventive. They invented the biker genre, the motorcycle movie, they invented black exploitation movies.
CP: How has the redneck fared in cinema?
JBB: Very well in terms of being an eternal stereotype that never goes away, because there’s no redneck rights organization. So rednecks will live forever in film because no one’s ever gonna say, “I’m a redneck and I’m offended.” It doesn’t happen, it’s not in the redneck DNA. It will always be with us.
CP: Has new technology and I guess the democratization of media changed the way we view the redneck?
JBB: It’s hard to say. Reality TV loves rednecks. If you can call that being a positive role model, then perhaps. But it comes in waves. There was a time when one of the most popular film franchises in the world were the Ma and Pa Kettle movies. No one would admit to watching a Ma and Pa Kettle movie, no one wanted to be in one, no actor would put them on their resume. But there was a period where that was a hot franchise. Universal made like 12 of them.
And Ernest! Ernest was a franchise when Michael Eisner ran Disney. But Eisner never would have spoken to the stockholders and said, “I’m so proud of our Ernest franchise.” But there were like 10 of those.
Rednecks are popular, but they’re not considered legitimate. [Ernest] is the positive image of the redneck in movies. It’s more often used as… you know the bring-out-the-gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, nobody says that those are guys from the South or rednecks, but we know immediately as soon as they start talking. He doesn’t even have to say why they’re torturing Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis. Because they’re rednecks! They’re just rednecks, that’s what they do. [Laughs]