Last night, I stayed up to watch a movie on TCM called Hot Rods To Hell.
I have since learned that this 1967 cult classic was originally made as a tv film with the working title 52 Miles to Terror.
Rumor has it that the flick didn't go straight to tv due to it's risqué content. It was filmed in two weeks time in Palmdale, California, and it was brought in under budget. Boy, does it show it. Hot Rods to Hell
begins with a perfect Christmas Eve for the perfect suburban family. Traveling salesman and stalwart father Tom Phillips (Dana Andrews) is injured in an auto accident, hit dead on by a drunk driver while listening to Christmas tunes. (It looked like a fender bender to me, but who knew?) After Tom's extensive and expensive recovery period, wife Peg (Jeanne Crain) worries about her husband's mental condition. "The accident did something to him, Bill," she explains to her brother-in-law, "It's his attitude about things. I'm afraid he's become a… a very frightened man."
Uncle Bill steps in and saves the day. Once Tom is comfortably ensconced at home with his wife and two children, teenage Tina (Laurie Mock) and young Jamie (Tim Stafford), he must consider his family's future. With his bad back, Tom can no longer cover the territory his old job required and money has been depleted during his recovery. Brother Bill proposes a new business opportunity: owning and operating a desert motel. (Did "Bate's Motel" pop into my head? You betcha. The minute Uncle Bill said this, I thought, "Uh oh.")
The Real Star of the Movie: A 1958 Corvette
The heavily made-up Andrews (who wears nearly as much make-up as his female co-star Crane) is terrorized by recurring nightmares of his accident. He also writhes and clutches at his bad back a lot talking about his pain pills. Dad decides a fresh start is in order. "As soon as I'm able, we'll make the trip. Just the four of us. Everything is going to be brand new."
As the Phillips family makes their way through the California desert in their Plymouth station wagon, they encounter a group of hot rodding teens. (Plymouth had to be giving the film maker some kind of deal here. I lost count of how many Plymouths I saw during the course of the film, but there were a lot.) The wild teens bad driving understandably upsets Dad Phillips, but youthful daughter Tina has a different perspective, "All the kids drag, Dad." (Tina, by the way, has some massively teased hair going, with a very clearly defined line along her crown to show she's wearing a fall. By today's actresses' standards, she was a tad "thick," would have breast augmentation and a nose job.)The cast screams in horror as their
collective careers go down in flames
"What kind of animals are those?", screams Mom as the wild irrepressible teens of Mayville, who apparently just hang in the desert driving in fast paced dirt flung circles, charge at the family's car head on. Well, Mom. They're the kind of animals that wear plaid, button down shirts and freshly-pressed slacks. The bored, outlaw kids dress like young Republicans with tidy hair and not a popped collar in the bunch. Surely in 1967 there were blue jeans, long hair and the flying of the freak flag. Duke (Paul Bertoya) the de facto punk leader of this wild trio, can't keep his hands off freaky chick Gloria (Mimsy Farmer.) She asks the universal eternal question for teens, "What's left for kicks?" After some swell hot rodding antics (close-ups are achieved using old-school rear projection techniques) Duke and Gloria engage in some heavy social recreation. He comes back from behind the desert rocks without a shirt on, exposing his tanned, oiled chest. Gloria, at best, looks...rumpled."We just had kicks...and I'm toast."
When the family car has a blowout, everyone is a bit rattled. "Let's not go being too dramatic," Mother quips, despite the fact she spends the rest of the movie clutching her face, hair flipping as she screams, "My God, Tom, why are they doing this? Why doesn't it stop?" (I found myself asking the same question repeatedly every time she screamed.)
At a nearby service station, Tom gets to talking with the station attendant about the motel and his plans for the future. Ernie (Gene Kirkwood as another well-dressed "hoodlum") overhears their conversation and fills Duke in on the situation. It seems that the motel and its adjoining roadhouse, The Arena, are the only places for disenfranchised local teens to hang out. There's no telling what a square like Tom Phillips will do to their favorite juke joint. With Square Tom owning the place, there's nowhere else in Mayville to go for kicks.
Kids Seeking Kicks In MayvilleHaven't They Tried Craig's List?
Tom, who's chosen this particular moment to try and overcome his fears, takes the wheel of the family car only to be terrorized by Duke and his pals. The kids taunt and tease the Phillips' family with their vehicular antics along vast stretches of the uninhabited desert highway. What makes the scene so enjoyable isn't the impressive stunt driving, but the reactions old hams, Andrews and Crane. While his family is being menaced, Andrews is stony-faced but sweaty while Crane shrieks, gasps and overacts wildly. Accompanied by frenzied go-go music, the teens literally drive circles around old man Tom. (Producing and editing in two weeks also means you get to see the shadows of cameramen in several shots.)
"Tom, we've got to get away from them," Peg pleads, overstating the obvious. A highway sign announces "Picnic Area Ahead," and the family find refuge at a particularly verdant spot that has trees, grass...even a lake! Just the kind of place you'd expect to find in the middle of the desert. The family proceeds to eat their lunch in peace while dad rests prone on a picnic bench to ease the pain in his back...(or maybe he's been popping some of those painkillers and is grooving to the pretty patterns the willow branches make, waving in the breeze.) Sullen Tina drifts off to the lake, mainly at her parent's urging, to escape her whining and pouty face."Picnics? Maaaan. Picnics are for SQUARES!"
Oops..wrong movie. That would be (a still cool
to this day) Marlon Brando in The Wild One
Duke shows up ready for some new action, and he abandons his girlfriend, Gloria, to his best friend, Ernie. Duke keeps calling Gloria "yesterday's bread," so he bops off to the lake to locate (crustless Wonder™) Tina who is dipping her bare tootsies in some MGM backlot tank. Tina is repelled, yet intrigued by Duke's freewheeling ways. "You almost killed us… for kicks." (Kicks again.) "Do you think I'd wanna hurt anybody who looks like you?", Duke asks. (Given her penchant for mismatched apparrel, I would guess, "Yes.") After giving her a kiss, Duke lays down the law, "Now tell your father that he'd better not try to change things because if he does, nobody around here is going to have any fun. Not even you."
A lunkheaded local (whose on screen wife is played by Hortense Petra, the wife of producer Sam Katzman) engages in some dangerous driving around the lake, plowing through kids to get to the hot dogs and cold beer (obviously a hunter/gatherer type.) This catches the attention of a highway patrolman who follows lunkhead back to the picnic area, and after lecturing the bozo, Tom and Peg report the earlier hot rod incident to him, "They have to be stopped officer, they're going to kill somebody." With a deadpan that rivals Joe Friday, the patrolman gives them a mini sermon on modern troubled youth. "These kids have nowhere to go but they want to get there at a 150 miles an hour. Giving them cars like that is like putting guns in their hands." The teens, in the meantime, have sermonized earlier about their martini swilling parents ("My dad will hold up the olive in his drink and say, "This is number one. I just want you to know, because by the time I have gotten to number 14, I will have forgotten.") Oh, the dichcotomy of it all.
With Duke and his gang on down the road, the Phillips family continue their trip. They arrive at the motel to find the adjoining "coffee shop" really jumping. It turns out the motel has this barn called "The Arena," that is a wild nightclub with the Mickey Rooney, Jr. trio featured as performers. The current owner, Daley, is ready to blow off to hotter spots (Vegas, L.A., San Francisco) in his Hawaiian shirts. Meanwhile, he's got a bartender in place slipping illicit booze and pills to the white go-go booted kids who appeared, to me, to be doing The Funky Chicken. The Phillips family settles in for the night but Tina tosses and turns in her bed, hair flared around her head, as she hears the demon drums of rock and roll.. She sneaks out her bedroom window, seemingly unable to resist the siren song of Mickey Rooney Jr. and his combo and finds her way to the club where she sees Ernie and Gloria, (who Duke again refers to as "stale bread") getting groovy on the crowded dance floor. Duke enters, and stale bread Gloria makes a scene when she sees that Duke is interested in Tina, a girl who is apparently popping fresh dough.
Coca Cola does not endorse
the antics of irrepressible teens
Though The Arena obviously sells alcohol, Duke and his underage pals seem to make due with soda pop. In a brief scene where Duke sits at a table, an awkward black bar obscures the brand name on the bottle he's drinking from. (It seems that Coca Cola didn't care to be associated with the immoral hooligans of Hot Rods to Hell,
so they banned the use of their product in the picture and the film editors air brushed the image out.) On the dance floor, Duke and Tina shake and shimmy and stare at each other longingly, then depart to the parking lot where Duke grabs Tina by her waist and is making these little pecking motions on her face. Tina pushes him off, insisting that she's "not like Gloria" (That would be "stale bread,") but Duke doesn't take no for an answer, "It's what's happening around here." (That would be "kicks.")
Tina protecting her expiration date
Realizing Tina is missing from her room, Tom circles the parking lot and finds the couple in this awkward embrace. He defends his daughter's virtue and starts choking Duke, but a back spasm prevents him from finishing the job. "Any girl would want Duke!", Tina screams at her father. Then she confesses, "You think I've never kissed a boy before?" (It reminded me of the old saw, "Who do I have to fuck to get off
this picture?") With talk like that, it's definitely time for a mother/daughter heart to heart, but their little talk turns into a hysterical screaming match when Peg questions Tina about her youthful yearnings, "Is that what you want? To wind up in a motel room with any man?" Tina screams back, "All you think about is me getting married! (she's 16, by the way.) "What if something happens to the man I marry? What if he gets to be like...like....Dad?!" This hits a little too close to home for Mom. First slapping her daughter, she then dispenses with some motherly advice, "Tina, there isn't a woman alive who doesn't want a man, but you're young enough and desirable enough to demand that a man love you if he wants you." (In other words, get a ring before you give up the goods, or you'll have an expiration date slapped on you and be good for nothing but bread crumbs.)
Dana Andrews having another back spasmjust thinking about his salary on his piece of junk
For Tom Phillips the motel deal is definitely off. He packs up his family and is back on the road in no time, heading for the nearest police who are 30 miles away. On their way out of town the family encounter a traffic accident. It seems the speeding lunkhead from the picnic spot has met with a bad end. With all the subtlety of a "Blood on the Pavement" driver's ed. film, the stoic policeman sermonizes, "The law doesn't just belong to the cops, it belongs to them too." (He means "us," folks.) Then he sends them on their way, back into the dangers of the dark desert.
"I'm only 30 miles away if you need help.
Why isn't anyone wearing a seatbelt in this movie?"
It isn't long before Duke and Ernie catch up to them on a lonely stretch of highway. The boys continue to terrorize the Phillips family, each of whom indulge in their own unique style of histrionic overacting. Another sign is seen, "Roadside Diner Ahead. Open 24 Hours. Truckers Welcome." (I swear. Dad Phillips could see a sign saying "Bridge Ahead. Go Jump," and he'd do it.) Dad heads for the diner and a respite from the games of chicken. This part was hilarious. Dad pulls into a boarded up diner parking lot, gets out of the car and announces, "Maybe there's somebody inside." Then he's peeking between boards on the window and says "There's a telephone in there. Maybe I can call for help." (Uh...yeah, Dad. There's
a plan. I fully expected Night of the Living Dead
hot rod zombies to appear next.) Duke and his Corvette follow Dad, and after a brief confrontation with the hooligans, Dad picks up a board, WITH NAILS, and threatens them saying, "Do you know what these nails can do to your face?" (This is where I totally lost it in hysterics.)
"Back off, punks. I'm packing boards."
Duke, Ernie and the car blow off into the night, but by now Tom has his epiphany and realizes that if he's going to fight back, it has to be on their terms. No more passivity. No more laying low. (Oh yeah. Did I forget to mention that Dad used to have anger issues before his accident? Well...he did.) Tom parks the car at the edge of a narrow bridge, has his family exit the car and walks them deep into the desert away from his planned danger. Duke and Ernie speed toward the family car for one final game of chicken, but they realize at the last minute that the Plymouth isn't budging. They swerve to avoid a collision and roll their rod off the road into a ditch. Tom runs up thunking at the upended Corvette, taking sissy swipes with a tire iron. He then begins to realize that he's had the fortitude to stand up to these little creeps all along. In a speech reminiscent of Scarlett O'Hara's vow to rebuild her ancestral home, Tom tells the boys, "I'm not going to run anymore. I'm going back to my motel and I'm gonna clean up all the slop and garbage and the smell and it's gonna be like it should be. And I won't even need the police." The police show up anyway and haul Duke and Ernie home with their tails between their legs. (No doubt to very drunk parents.)
It may have been a deeply traumatizing experience for them all, but the Phillips family is closer and more wholesome than ever. "Peg," a newly liberated Tom tells his wife, "I wouldn't even mind if you drove now." With Mom now behind the wheel, everyone piles into the station wagon for the drive back to their own little piece of the American dream, a roadside motel in Mayville, U.S.A. Dad in his high-waisted Sansabelt™ slacks, ready to defend his piece of the American loaf.
"I'm getting bugged driving up
and down this same old strip
I've got to find a new place
where the kids are hip."