Monday, February 11, 2008

Hot Rods to Hell

(1967, 92 min.)

Starring Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain, Mimsy Farmer, Laurie Mock, Paul Bertoya, Gene Kirkwood, Tim Stafford, George Ives, Hortense Petra, William Mims, Paul Genge, Peter Oliphant, Harry Hickox, Charles P. Thompson, Mickey Rooney, Jr.

Screenplay by Robert E. Kent, from a story by Alex Gaby.

Directed by John Brahm.

“These kids have nowhere to go…and they want to get there at 150 miles per hour!”

Andrews plays Tom Phillips, a New England salesman with a family he could have bought along with his television set, domesticated wife Peg (Crain), moody, teenage daughter Tina (Mock), and rambunctious young son Jaime (Stafford). On the way home from business in Boston, he crosses paths with a crazy, all-over-the-road driver (lending the film at least one facet of authenticity, am I right, Beantown motorists?) and has an accident that sends him into rehab and damages his joie de vivre even more than it does his back. Realizing Tom can’t make a living driving around any more, Tina and Tom's brother Bill (Hickox) figure out a plan for the family: they’ll migrate to California and buy a hotel that’s for sale so he can make money without having to move around too much, not to mention that the desert will be good for his back with its heat and good for his mind with its serenity. Bill has practically brokered the entire deal before even talking to his brother, including full inspections, which either says a lot about his belief in his own powers of persuasion or the writers’ belief in the art of expediency.

Humorously, no sooner have they set wheel in Cali than they’re almost driven off the road by a couple of drag racers. (Fastest lifeplan shot to shit ever.) One of the cars has two guys, Duke (Bertoya) and Ernie (Kirkwood), and Duke’s girl Gloria (Farmer). The high-speed action has Gloria acting like she’s ready to mount the stick shift, and she screams at Duke to run his rival off the road. Circling back around they once again pass the family resting on the side of the road, whereupon Gloria demonstrates another behavior she learned in finishing school by lobbing a beer can at Jaime’s head. They drive on and park, but while Duke turns off his car’s motor, Gloria’s is still running, so they send a grumbling Ernie off on his own while they get it on. (As Gloria, Farmer is campily electric, careening between her need for kicks and her desperate desire to be anywhere but in that town. The overbite that makes her seem so vulnerable in later Italian productions such as Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat and Armando Crispino’s Autopsy is used to full sexpot effect here.)

Meanwhile, back on the road with one man’s family, the Phillipses blow a tire. Tom, relegated to the passenger seat owing to his heebie-jeebies, freaks out and grabs the wheel, sending them into a bad spin. (It’s possible the universe simply doesn’t want these people driving.) Fortunately, they’re not far from a service station run by old Charley (Thompson). It happens that this is where Ernie has ended up as well, and when he starts to give Tina the once-over, Tom doesn’t like at all. (They kind of have to have him ogling the girl, because before Tom recognizes him as one of the kids from the car, there’s virtually no reason for him to be suspicious of the boy. If anything, his shirt is more conservative than Tom’s and the only difference between their pants is the inches above which they perch on the waist.) Tom threatens to call the cops about their reckless behavior, but Ernie isn’t concerned. He becomes concerned, however, when he hears Tom tell Charley that he’s just bought the hotel, which is also apparently a local hangout. The family leaves, and Duke and Gloria show up. Ernie tells them what he’s learned and Duke decides to set up the family for another scaring. As they pull out, Charley yells, “Why don’t you leave them alone?” to which Gloria replies, “You’re old, Charley! How would you know?” Guess she was on the debate team, too.

The teens, with the help of a number of friends, terrorize the family on the road a little more, until the Phillipses find a rest area full of people to take refuge in. While there, they speak to a local cop (Genge) about what happened, and he delivers the line that begins this review, possibly in hopes that a studio tagline writer is listening in. Tina sneaks off for some alone time by the lake, where Duke finds her and susses out that she’s enough of a typical whiny teenager that he might be able to take advantage of her.

Later, the family makes it to the hotel, the property of which also houses the Arena, the nightclub that our dragsters call home. They meet the man they’re buying the place from, Dailey (Ives), a Hawaiian-shirted glad-hander who’s more than happy to pass the place off to someone else before the delinquents who hang out there cause some real trouble, although he’s not about to tell the Phillipses that. While the family sleeps that night, to the tune of blues rock coming out of the Arena (played by a band apparently led by Mickey Rooney’s son!), Tina sneaks out to get a closer look. She faces off with Gloria, only Duke is ready to kick his old squeeze to the curb, so Gloria runs off to have sex with Ernie, leaving Tina to have Duke all to herself, lucky girl. And sure enough, faster than you can say, “I can’t wait until they invent the roofie,” Duke is all over her. Jaime, woken by the noise, discovers his sister is missing and alerts Tom. Tom runs outside, finds Duke pawing Tina and attempts to throttle him, prevented only by his bum spine. Of course, you know, this means war.

Actually, that last sentence makes the film sound a lot more exciting than it is. Things do come to a head, but in a greater degree of movie-of-the-week than fun-at-the-drive-in. But that’s in keeping with the whole spirit of the picture. The title may scream JD smash-up, but most of those films were about the JDs in question, while this is really more about the family, Tom in particular. Andrews plays him as a walking bundle of nerves (the back one pinched) whose anger at the position of weakness that the accident has placed him in is almost as crippling as his physical injury. Eventually he discovers that he is still capable of acting in a reckless, bloodthirsty manner, which removes the necessity for him to do so and makes everything better in the process…somehow. Hey, I’m not going to pretend to understand the mindset of a middle-aged family man of the late-‘60s.

Which actually brings up another interesting point. This film is about a decade later than most of the JD films it apes, and yet seems to have stepped out of a hole directly linked to that time. This just reinforces the idea that the relevant thing here is the perspective: that of a man with his slightly-more-PG-than-The-Donna-Reed-Show clan being forced into monumental change he can no more control than he can understand. The fact that the antagonists aren’t really all that different from the people they’re tormenting could be looked upon as a psychological dimension, and a defensive one at that. Given the proliferation of outlaw biker gangs by this time, the percolating hippie movement that was about to boil over, and that this very film improbably came out the same year as The Trip and Hell’s Angels on Wheels, if a couple of speed demons who otherwise wouldn’t look out of place on the student council could be so troublesome, imagine what happens when this poor man wakes up the day after his arrival in California and really takes a look out of his window.

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