How movie critic Joe Bob Briggs' new show united horror fans — and broke the internet
The Last Drive-In With Joe Bob Briggs
What's a better career move for a film critic than people being able to see you on television? People not being able to see you on television. That, at least, is the conclusion drawn by exploitation movie expert Joe Bob Briggs.
Last July, Briggs' debut movie marathon for the genre-focused streaming service Shudder proved so popular that the servers crashed. This meant many folks missed him ruminating on such films as Tourist Trap, Sleepaway Camp, and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-rama.
"For the first hour, I kept getting these messages from people saying, 'You sons of bitches, I can't get this f—ing show! I paid for this! You a—holes!'" Briggs recalls to EW. "People were just furious. Then I started getting these congratulatory messages like, 'Joe Bob, did you know that you just broke the internet? Do you know that you just broke Shudder? Everything's down! This is amazing!' It became this celebration of the pent-up demand for the show that crashed everybody's servers."
Briggs had assumed that the 24-hour marathon would be a one-off, hence its title, The Last Drive-In With Joe Bob Briggs. But the event proved so popular that Shudder brought him back for another marathon at Thanksgiving, Dinners of Death, and a third in December, A Very Joe Bob Christmas.
"I have watched every single one [of the marathons]," says Graham Skipper, the star of horror movies Almost Human and Beyond the Gates and the writer-director of the 2017 sci-fi thriller Sequence Break. "We had a bunch of friends over to our house for Thanksgiving, and for the most part none of them really were horror fans. I turned on the Joe Bob marathon, and they were so drawn in by Joe Bob's intro that they watched the film. At the end, all of them turned to me and said, 'Holy sh—, we had no idea this movie was so good.' I think that is why Joe Bob is so special."
The marathons also proved to be communal experiences for horror fans who weren't physically watching the movies together.
"For me, it's the equivalent of getting a bunch of friends together for a slumber party, where all of you are going to watch a triple feature of Dawn of the Dead and Chopping Mall and Event Horizon," Skipper says. "Of course, now we live in a social-media age where Twitter is that experience, and so we can all sit there and tweet at each other and comment on facts that we didn't know, or elements of movies that Joe Bob points out that we hadn't thought of really in that way. It's just so much fun."
Beginning March 29, Briggs will host a weekly double feature of movies for Shudder on Friday nights, for which he will both introduce and interrupt films, delivering to viewers the distinctive mix of horror-themed wit and wisdom he honed on TMC's Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater in the '80s and '90s, as well as on TNT's MonsterVision. This return to the spotlight is doubly impressive given that Briggs hadn't fronted a show since MonsterVision was cancelled in 2000. And it's triply noteworthy for someone who doesn't actually exist. Joe Bob Briggs is, in fact, the creation and alter ego of writer John Bloom, who began reviewing horror movies, sexploitation films, and other drive-in friendly fare under that moniker while working for the Dallas Times Herald in the early '80s.
"I was intrigued by the fact that there was this certain class of films that they would never screen for critics," says Bloom, 66. "The only person who ever screened [that kind of] film for me was Roger Corman [the legendary B-movie producer]. I became friends with Roger and over time I would ask him about his various philosophies of film, and he would tell me how he does the motor vehicle chases, and how much nudity should be in a film. He had all these really refined theories about how to make an exploitation film. I became fascinated with the science of making exploitation films. I stopped reviewing the David Lean epics and kept writing about these, what to me were, more interesting movies. At the time, nobody was writing about them and it was kind of controversial: 'Why is this guy celebrating this trash in a mainstream newspaper?'"
Among the first films placed under the critical microscope by "Joe Bob Briggs" — a.k.a. "the world's only drive-in movie columnist" — were Mad Monkey Kung Fu, The Beast Within, and Basket Case. But what separated Briggs from his fellow critics as much as the films he chose to review was the way he chose to review them, concentrating less on the film's cinematography and subtexts and more on how much kung fu, nudity, and gore-spattered mayhem they featured. "Friday the 13th, Part 3, is okay… even though I thought it was indoor bull stuff," Briggs wrote, concluding his assessment of the 1982 slasher threequel. "No kung fu. Approximately two bare tops. Thirteen corpses. Heads roll. Three stars. Joe Bob says check it out."
Bloom's columns also found Briggs discussing his private life, and his often decidedly un-PC personal philosophies. In one column titled "Joe Bob's Rules to Live By," readers learned that "Women should never be judged by their personal appearance. They should be judged by the size of their hooters." The columns lovingly satirized both genre films and blue-collar Texas culture while being, Briggs admits, deliberately provocative. "I had to walk this fine line because I was always working for editors that hated what I was doing," says Bloom. "The original column that I wrote for the Dallas Time Herald, we actually buried it in a Friday entertainment section so that the editor of the paper would never see it. We were able to keep it going sort of as a stealth thing at a time when it would have been considered not appropriate for a family newspaper."
In April 1985, Bloom ran into trouble after he wrote a column containing a parodical version of the charity song "We Are the World." The ensuing uproar caused the Dallas Times Herald to cancel the column. Bloom was also dropped by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, which distributed Joe Bob's musings to 57 newspapers. However, the column was rapidly picked up by Universal Press Syndicate. "My theory of this type of satire is, you set up a machine gun on a swivel, and you hit this target, and that target, and that target, and the next target," he says. "You hit everybody at random, and then one of the targets will scream, so you hit them 20 more times. That's how you identify the sacred cow, and that's how you destroy the sacred cow."
But at the the time of the controversy surrounding the column, Bloom was already plotting to unleash his creation in other media, starting with a one-man show called An Evening With Joe Bob Briggs. "It was basically a comedy show with music," Bloom says. "I would sing these parody country & western songs. I had a backup band. Sometimes I had dancers called the Dancing Behemoth Sisters. They were a chorus line of extremely large women who could dance really well. So, it was sort of a variety show that I did on a lot of college campuses and some other venues. I still like to perform on stage. I do a show called How Rednecks Saved Hollywood. It's about 200 clips and stills with comedy. It's the history of the redneck as told in film."
In 1986, Bloom-as-Briggs began to guest host TMC's Drive-In Theater, which would ultimately be renamed Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater.
"They'd bought all this crap in Europe that they didn't know how to program on the movie channel," Bloom says. "They'd go to the film markets, and they want to buy a certain movie, and they'd [be told], 'Well, we'll only sell you that movie if you buy these other 16.' They'd come back with all this product, things like a West German sex comedy — a thankfully now dead genre. They would say, 'We need a host for this,' and I was the only guy out there. So, they brought me in to be a guest host. And then they said, 'Well, why don't you come back next month?' I just kept coming back for 11 years!"
During his spell at TMC, Bloom published a string of books. The first, a collection of columns called Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In, featured an introduction by Stephen King that compared him to satirist Jonathan Swift. Over the years, Bloom has continued to publish under his own name, although his alter ego's work has proven more popular. "[Writing as John Bloom] tapered off when one time the Village Voice called and they said, 'We'd like you to do an article'," he says. "I said, 'Is that a John Bloom article or a Joe Bob Briggs article?' And they said, 'Who's John Bloom?'"
Bloom also branched out into acting, scoring roles in the 1994 miniseries version of King's novel The Stand and Martin Scorsese's 1995 movie Casino. In the latter, he played a casino employee who is harshly berated by Robert De Niro's character. "I was very intimidated to be doing scenes with Robert De Niro," Bloom says. "I'm sure he's a nice guy, really, but he was a scary guy to me. He said to me, 'When we do my close-up, would you do me a favor and really get up in my face and annoy me? So that that registers on my face?' And I said, 'Sure, Mr. De Niro, sure, I'll scream right in your face, if that's what you need.' Then he says, 'And then, when we turn the camera around, I'll do the same thing for you.' I was like, 'Oh, oh gosh, I don't know…'"
Bloom had a better time hanging out with the film's director. "Martin Scorsese likes to talk, and he's an expert on so many different types of films," he says. "He would say something like, 'Would you agree that the woman-in-prison film is not a subgenre of the prison film, but is a genre in itself?' And I would say, 'Yes, I absolutely agree, Mr. Scorsese!' [Laughs] It's like, boy, he really has thought about this."
TMC canceled Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater in 1996, but within a few months Bloom was back on television, starting a four-year stint hosting MonsterVision. That show's cancellation began Joe Bob Briggs' period in the wilderness, although Bloom explains that there were numerous attempts to get him back on screen. "Ever since I went off the air, once a year, twice a year, somebody would come to me from a network or an independent production outfit and say, 'Do you want to do another show?'" he says. "I would always say yes. And then I would never hear from them again. I assumed they were going somewhere, pitching the idea to somebody, and getting a 'Get out of my office!' response."
In the fall of 2017, Bloom was approached once again about a possible return to TV by producer Matt Manjourides and director Austin Jennings. "They came and they said, 'Do you want to do another show?'" remembers Bloom. "And I said sure. We had lunch, and I thought that would be the end of it. I never expected to see these guys again."
Manjourides and Jennings arranged a meeting with Owen Shiflett, vice president of development at Shudder, which was looking to ramp up its original programming. Shiflett suggested Bloom-as-Briggs host a movie marathon. "They were like, 'We want you to do the exact same show that you did in the '90s,'" Bloom says. "I said, 'You can't do that. TV ideas, they they date, you know.' And they said, 'No, no, no, no — we want to do a nostalgic show, where you recreate the show that you did in the '90s.'" After the marathon proved a success, "Shudder said they wanted to do more stuff, so that's where we're going now. We've done a couple of marathons, and now we're going to do a double-feature series. So I'm just rolling with it!"
"For those of us growing up in the '90s, weird movies playing late-night on cable was the norm," Shiflett tells EW. "Joe Bob swooped in and added context and perspective on these otherwise unknown films. He was never afraid to tell the viewer what was legitimately great and legitimately awful about the movie we were watching. He was always honest and always himself, which is always a special thing in entertainment. In a lot of ways, the horror movie host, and Joe Bob Briggs in particular, was the precursor to today's social-media influencer."
Briggs' stature in the genre community was confirmed earlier this year when horror magazine Fangoria made him the cover star of the second issue since the title's recent relaunch as a print quarterly.
"Fangoria has always celebrated its heroes — Tom Savini, John Carpenter, Rick Baker, Stephen King — but in 2019 there's something sort of perfect about putting the patron saint of fandom on the cover," says Fangoria editor-in-chief Phil Nobile Jr. "As kids, we worshipped the Masters of Horror and Godfathers of Gore, but as adults we're maybe finally recognizing that people like Joe Bob, the evangelists and keepers of the flame, were really the ones who shaped our love of the genre."
Bloom reveals that the films he screens on his Shudder show will be a mix of the familiar and the less well known. "It's sort of one big smorgasbord," he says. "People love it when we do the '80s, so we have to do some classics from the '80s, and then we also have to do some garbage from the '80s. Then they want to see all the classic Universal films, they want to see all the films of the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s. The horror audience is not like any other audience, they want to see everything from the beginning of time. I'm trying to show more Japanese, more Italian, more Korean horror, so that we can sort of expand people's ideas of what horror is. It's really interesting to me to show those and to talk about them, because it really reveals deep cultural differences between the various countries."
Skipper plans on watching the show in Los Angeles at a horror-themed pop-up bar he has founded called Rated R, whose first night coincides with the premiere. "People can come, sit down in a comfy chair, watch the Joe Bob marathon on the big screen, and be literally steps away from as much booze as your heart desires," the actor and filmmaker says. "I personally think that's the best way to watch Joe Bob."
Bloom believes he has benefited from both a feeling of nostalgia toward the whole concept of hosted horror movies and a growing interest in genre fare. "People like the throwback aspect of it, and they like the deep dive of it," he says. "When I started writing about exploitation movies, nobody cared about them, really. The world has changed in terms of pop culture becoming mainstream culture. There are professors who write to me who are studying movies that in the early '80s, when I started writing about these movies, would have been considered disposable trash. Now people who go so deep into these things that I have to tell them, 'No, now you're just being ridiculous!'"
So, how long can Bloom imagine donning Briggs' cowboy duds to ruminate and pontificate? Is Joe Bob going to be wheeled out at the age of 97 to talk about Texas Chain Saw Massacre 17? "I hope so! I hope so!" says Bloom. "I'll totally be up for it if they want to do that."
For now, his focus is on the new Shudder show, though he admits that "new" may not quite be the right word to use.
"I've essentially done the same show three times," Bloom says with a laugh. "It never changes! The director of the new show is one of those rabid fans. He's always saying things to me like, 'Remember that thing that you did in 1997?' I'm like, 'No, I don't.' And he says, 'Well, we're going to do that again!'"