In the best of these 'backwoods blast-offs', like TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, there are sultry glimmers of greatness, and the worst, like SMOKEY BITES THE DUST (1981), there are at least some good crashes. But... remember a few miles back we talked about DEATH RACE 2050 ("the only movie that matters in 2017" - April Wolfe), and talked about how no film could match the original? Well, the original was such a surprise hit Corman ordered a whole slew of variants, futuristic car chase movies that, in their way, paved the lanes for the MAD MAX to come. He just, you know, didn't want them to be funny. Had he forgot about THE RAVEN?
And how's this for prescient: DEATH RACE hypothesized that in 2000 we'd be living under the thumb of a crazy trash-talking president (hey!) with a fun old-school (like Roman gladiator) sense of entertainment and population control. In the process all the tenets of 70s life were commented upon: road rage, gas crises, OPEC; America's big cathartic fuck-you to the next four days of work that was Monday Night Football; Detroit demonology (the grease pit grimoire with groovy names like Gran Turino, Corvette, Trans-Am, Mitzy Bishu Gallant, Suzy Bannon the Buick); CB radios (as discussed in the earlier piece on CONVOY) and revolution!
It's perhaps understandable why I-- who was a monster child in that time--would return now to the auto wreck bloodsport satire genre as if some rumbling unleaded Rosebud. For our crazy prez, for our crazy country, for the year of 2017, when America's Civil War turned so cold we grew more Russian than the Russkies, start your engines!
Hear the mighty engines roaring for America? Komrade, we need to rev it. Only by blazing fast and furious do we finally not stand stagnant.
(1976) Dir. Paul Bartel
With the popularity of the car crash movie (perfect for drive-ins) well established, 2000 director Paul Bartel jumped lanes and drafted over behind the now-forgotten real-life Cannonball Dash, a cross-country race that was set up to protest the 55 mph highway law (set up in 1974). That race had caught the popular cinematic imagination to the point that in 1976 it congealed into films like GUMBALL RALLY (1976), SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and--far less remembered--Bartel's CANNONBALL. In the original Dash and other race films, the issue of prize money, a bet, the importance of an honor system and all in the game camaraderie is easier to understand (a gum ball machine, for example, is a relatively worthless prize). For the inexplicable $100,000. prize in CANNONBALL, well, that's real money, and it's just too damn easy to cheat if all you need is an LA parking lot stamp at the NYC finish line. One canny little guy flies his car in a big jumbo jet across country; other drivers sabotage rival cars (with racers too dumb to watch their vehicle or check under the hood); and so forth.
These things bother me; and the film is choked up with actors too much alike to tell apart with your glasses off, all made even similar-er-er for no real reason. Rather than tweak cliches to archetypal amok wresling-style comic book lunacy, here Bartel just delivers them flat, like dropping off laundry. A smiling polite black dude (Stanley Bennett Clay) racing some nice Goy couple's car to NY for them (we know they're deserving of a smashed caddy because they tell him not to drive at night or faster than 55 mph - how dare they!); the amazing Gerrit Graham ambles along as a cowboy singer riding with his mobbed-up manager Mr. Redmond, who's hoping this event will boost his profile (how, exactly?) David Carradine is a 'legend' named Cannonball (so original!) who is breaking parole the moment his car leaves California. One speeding ticket and he's back in jail with the key thrown away! This is just one of Cannonball's terrible choices, the sort of self-sabotage that dirtbags often confuse with bad luck. Luckily for him, his parole officer (Veronica Hamel) is also his navigator/lover. But if you remember her from HILL STREET BLUES than it may not be so lucky for you: her character there was far too professional and competent in that beloved show to throw away her career following such a three-strikes idiot over the edge. Though it's nice to see her wipe the floor with a cadre of good old boys trying to hobble Cannonball (who watches from the sidelines), it's sad that she also seems dubbed... from far away.
Faring better in our esteem is the great Mary Woronov, who pilots a van carrying two horny blondes in the back (Diane Lee Hart, Glynn Rubin); David's little brother Robert and Brenda Belaski are also quite good as a pair of young newlyweds trying their luck for the prize. They seem genuinely in love, young and sweet (they even brought an acoustic guitar) plus the race makes sense in the terms of their character arc (elopement, money, youth, horniness) far more than in the others.
In short, ladies, the 'Trans-America Grand Prix Auto Race" is on! Just ignore the obvious nagging questions about logic and practicality (like how gas guzzling town cars are bad at cross country races, running out of gas way more often out in the cornfields at night), the contradictory rules (does Bartel [and his co-writer Don TOP GUN Simpson] even know how races or gambling odds actually work?), and the sheer idiocy of "Cannonball", his sycophantic copycat (so annoying), and Dick Miller as his bookmaking older brother, who sabotages other fast cars in the race but then, confusingly, seems to be out to sabotage his brother too (did he become someone else's brother in one of Simpson's rewrites?) He needn't bother in any case, for Cannonball is an easy mark. Never thinking to follow his enemies when they walk or crawl past the rear of his car on their way out of the parking lot, he's stunned when his jack later turns up missing or his lights don't work or his gas tanks been ice-picked. When he finally falls asleep at the wheel, you're like fuck, I'm rooting for the other guy.
I've barely scratched the surface with how purely stupid and incompetent Carradine's Cannonball (the driver) is, I can only presume crafty Bartel was going somewhere with the idea, some black comic joke between the 'lines' done with Simpson... now lost in the nasal cavity of time.
If you can ignore all that, well, go for it, as the car stunts are amazing. Highlights include: an awesome jump across an unfinished stretch of highway overpass and and plenty of wild spin-outs and crashes (all from back in the day they did that shit for real). A plethora of insider cameos helps as well: Corman himself plays the Los Angeles DA; Don Simpson is his assistant; Bartel a shady fey mobster (the type who play piano while their thugs kick the shit out of someone for not holding up their end of whatever). Martin Scorsese and Sly Stallone are the thugs! Yo Adrian! Joe Dante and Allan Arkush are mid-states tow-truck drivers who help out Cannonball with a new car (though I wouldn't trust that dork with my Big Wheel).
In short, America.
Even so, Don Simpson stopped writing and turned to producing after this, smart move, Don! Your idiocy and coked-up gumption will poison the 80s with a wealth of attention span-destroying military recruitment videos. He died in 1996, Bartel in 200, so there you go. Hell, there we all go...
(1978) Dir. Allan Arkush, Nicholas Niciphor
Criticism out of the way, I like the guns, which are like big Pringles can-shaped mini bazookas that fire huge laser bolts that vaporize opponents, and I love the thrift-shop dumpster dive approach to the costumes, and I'm glad the film never bothers to explain the game's rules. If we're part of the film's intended drive-in demographic, well, we're probably too high from huffing rush and snorting evaporated Nyquil to not think it's our own fault we can't follow what's going on. Blowing shit up though?! Hell yeah, and let the teachers and short goomba burnouts who wronged you in middle school get theirs by flaming proxy.
|Claudia Jennings endures the torture of the light strips|
Then there are other weird bits: cute girls who disobey the sleazy leader get thrown naked into the room of dangling light strips, or zapped on the color filter-lit table of abstract woe. It would be misogynist if it wasn't hilarious in its plastic abstraction and half-hearted wincing. I like that stuff though. Confidentially, I never understood this habit some of the newer movies have of making the pain and fear so vivid and realistic it leaves you shaken. (The worst of these? Noomi Rapace! She makes her character's pain so vivid it ceases to entertainment.) Corman and company get that it's supposed to be pulp cover salacious and/or goofy, not traumatizing. It's one of the great truths of myth and acting: unconvincingly acted pain lightens the heart. Slimy monsters do the raping and the end result isn't therapy but ALIEN-rip living births. The electro-lightshow shock treatments given to Claudia Jennings don't leave a scar on our psyche but harken the whole mess back a few years to AIP's DUNWICH HORROR (1971) and Hazel Court's initiation scene in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1968). The weird lighting and enigmatic presence of David McLean's 'Lord Zirpola' as the sick spectator / torturer gives these scenes a weird vibe reminiscent of the conditioning scenes in CLOCKWORK ORANGE or the jaded diners in CAFE FLESH. In this future it's hard to tell where meta-reality and the diegetic performances separate. Even in their plywood holding cells, still wet with white paint, Carradine and Jennings are on display before the all-seeing eye of Zirpola--this combination of paranoid despot and louche peeping tom.
David Carradine plays an amalgam of Kane from ABC's 1972-5 KUNG FU series and of course Frankenstein in DEATH RACE 2000; lupine playmate Claudia Jennings is a fellow guide and warrior (as in the best Corman stealth-feminism, she's as tough and wise and as combat-proficient as any of the men - and prettier too). Great as they both are at keeping straight faces amidst the madness, Lynch, as the bad guy / master henchman gets all the best lines, purred in a mellow emotionless forceful calm: "You call me animal? After all I tried to do to make you feel at peace?" Whatever his fall from grace, he's openly admirable towards the memory of Carradine's warrior mother, whom he killed in battle after she kicked him out of "the League"), giving him the ultimate warrior greeting: "Salute your mother for me." And it's always amazing the way Lynch seems to wind up in films full of fire effects, considering his history (3). In fact, I'm literally in awe of his fearlessness (2). Burn scars cover almost entire body, yet there he is, striding amidst the fireballs like it's just another day at the fair, saying oblique justifications like "man is a candle that radiates life - he must burn." (1)
Andrew Stein's synthesizer score provides a great minimalist mess of wind sounds, zaps, and sustained notes somewhere between the Bebes' FORBIDDEN PLANET and faux John Carpenter. His attempts at actual melody are terrible (they remind me of stuff I've made for my own films), but then Jerry Garcia starts noodlint in and around in the mix, coming and going at the darndest times. And as anyone who ever sat through a Dead show can tell you, if you depend on Jerry to lead you out of the caves of aimless noodling, well, you're going to be in there a long while and things might get weird before they start to see the light of melody. Here, weird is a good thing.
Weirder still is the way faux-samurai ethos are folded into the stilted dialogue, creating an effect like stealing someone else's clean underwear at the laundromat: the narrator stresses the sacredness of combat, noting the range guides "ow(e) allegiance only to their foes." The greeting between range guides is "Our union is limited." Another keeper, delivered with the solemnity through which Carradine won the heart chakras of a generation of strip mall karate kids: "No one can touch myself." I wanted to write every line down, but my attention span is limited. And without that deep-set eye roll couched in Carradine's intonation, or the mellifluent low ebb Lynch gives to his, I can no more capture their wry beauty than a moon capture the dragon fly's wallet.
In case you can't tell, I got mad love for this terrible movie and all the deadpan jokes Carradine, editor Larry Bock, and replacement director Arkush, sneak little into the termite crevasses. Every so often Carradine casts a wry glance at the camera that Bock and Arkush leave in, and it counteracts the more pretentious serious art elements that no doubt the original director--fresh out of film school and full of self-seriousness-- shoehorned in. I love the way the mutants hide their faces so we don't linger on the awful yellow ping-pong ball eyes and I love how Jenning's unusual fox-like features are complimented by her white fur collar. I'm not a fan of the grating replaying of the same sound effect over and over during the endless shots of pursuing bikers but, after all, our union is limited. Noodle on, Big Jerry. Noodle on.
The Shout DVD includes a fun Bock and Arkush commentary wherein we learn that whatever Niciphor was intending with his initial version, it didn't work; Arkush was called in to direct new footage of fireballs, nudity and enough action to make Niciphor's high concept artsy parts less static, which Arkush did in spades. He pours anarchic pyromaniac anarchy onto the staid sci-fi conceptualism with some of the same giddy anarchic spirit he brought to ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and GET CRAZY. (that the latter isn't on DVD is one of the great crimes of the 21st century) and so DEATHSPORT becomes like the school project between the sanctimonious nerd who did most of the work and the cool burnout who only shows up on the last day but adds in enough cool random stuff that the nerds's portentious twaddle becomes at least palatable to the restless student body.
To sum: with the scorched features and measured tone of the fearless fire elemental Richard Lynch, the always lovely and literally and figuratively foxy Jennings, the cracking wry fourth wall eye rolling of Carradine, the copious fireballs, the tricked-out bikes flying into the air, the sly way the actors cover up the budget limitations, sometimes with just their hands, and the Arkush commentary explaining it all when you need a break from the Zzzzap sound effects, well you're guaranteed a reasonably good time. Just don't watch the second feature on the Shout DVD, BATTLETRUCK. It might have Michael Beck but he's a long way from XANADU... Aren't we all?
1. Lynch also played a cult leader who encourages his flock to burn themselves up in BAD DREAMS, and an alien hybrid cult leader who burns himself up in a tenement basement in GOD TOLD ME TO.
2-3. The scarred skin of Lynch's face is real --he poured gas on himself and lit a match while under the influence of too much LSD in the 1960s. I think youtube has some clips of him talking about it.