Here's a natural noggin scratcher - how does one reconcile a pair of stock car racing melodramas within the realm of skin and sin known as exploitation? Granted, said genre categorization is pretty broad. It encompasses slasher films, nudist colony romps, hard-boiled naked noir, and the occasional creepy kids film, among many, many others. Some say that as long as the subject matter falls within the purview of the socially unacceptable, there is a place for it in the pantheon of the perverted. Yet the question remains. Granted, a little pre-NASCAR auto racing should be equally at home within the overbroad grindhouse dynamic, and in all fairness to fans of such films, they do play directly into the demographic that made both entertainment mediums successful - sullen Southern rednecks looking for something to do at the local drive-in and/or speedway. Millions were made way below the magical Mason Dixon line in the genre's heyday, and it is said target audience that today feeds our nation's current lust for eaten dust. Besides, if bikers can get in good with the raincoat crowd, why can't guys gliding on four wheels?
In their final DVD diversion for March, Something Weird Video unearths a pair of auto-based artifacts sure to amaze and confuse. Each one contains plenty of stock (car) footage, and both overbake their narratives until the melodrama is almost molten. In Speed Lovers, an eager to drive dullard named Scott keeps pestering his pop for a shot at the big time. That the almost over the hill "punk kid" has no provable race experience (except for a couple years in college and a stint in the military, if that helps) doesn't seem to dissuade him. Naturally, he falls in with a mincing mobster and his beefy hoods. Meanwhile there is some substantial Thunder in Dixie once Ticker Welsh gets to jonesing for ex-partner Mikey Arnold's immediate death. Blaming him for the drunk driving demise of his main squeeze, Ticker determines that the best way to off his bastard of a buddy is during the Dixie 400, in front of thousands of die-hard Atlanta Motor Speedway fans. After all, they're used to seeing mangled bodies pulled from tangled metal. Another corpse won't scuttle their consumption of snacks.
First up is the crazy color cavalcade about burning rubber and an even more heated desire...to drive, that is. See, Scott Clayton comes from a long line of gear heads. His dad, who looks about 20 years younger than his aged "son" has been the mechanic for stock car champion Fred Lorenzen for as long as the movie remembers, and the ornery offspring keeps wondering when it will be his turn behind the big wheel. Yet Scott feels stifled by everyone on the circuit. See, they all talk trash about his paying dues and learning to race properly, and our brash boy wonder finds that stance offensive. So when a competing car owner, the fairly fetching Vanessa Hamilton, tries to lure Lorenzen and crew over to her team, Scott sees a way in. He agrees to help lure the pair into parking their muscle car in her grateful garage. What he doesn't know, however, is that Hamilton is working for an effete mobster, a man with many stubby fingers in several succulent pies known as Pinkerton Bentley. Our portly heavy woes Scott with several slutty gals, and it's not long before the wannabe clutch popper is blasting off - in other ways. As the big race looms, our hopeless hero is given a mandate - get Lorenzen on Vanessa's side, or face the lethal consequences. But this spoiled sport can only think of himself. Not only is he one of the few, the proud, the Speed Lovers, but he's created a deadly web of murderous intrigue that has everyone in harm's way. What a guy.
What a guy indeed. William F. McGaha, whose last name sounds like the noise Amanda Byrnes makes during her Nickelodeon sketch comedy series, has a rather notorious cinematic canon. With only three films to his credit, he managed to make one trippy racetrack roundelay, a typical sex comedy, and a movie about the second coming of Jesus Christ. Never truly content to stay behind the camera, McGaha also writes and acts, often taking the starring role in his personalized productions. In the God gone gonzo message movie, J.C., McGaha is a mad messiah who rejects his omnipresent pappy and joins a biker gang. He then drops acid and heads off into the wilderness to fight the power. Yet as odd as that sounds, it cannot prepare you for this awkward auteur's work in Speed Lovers. Taking on the central role as the world's oldest youngster, McGaha wants us to believe that he is a fresh faced 20-something, sick of college and his military service and ready to roll on the stock car circuit. As a performer, this multi-threat moviemaker has one juvenile trait down pat - he is an excellent complainer. Indeed, a good subtitle for this film would be The Days of Whine and Roadsters. When he's not bitching about his dad, or his lack of opportunities, he's bad tempered about how much he dreams of being a success. When someone can find flaws in their own goals and ambitions, they are truly a tetchy fool.
Another aspect of adolescent antics that McGaha gets right is his character's complete inability to dance with style or grace. Since Speed Lovers is filled with lots of artificial rock and roll, there are plenty of chances for our lugubrious lead to stomp around like a poet on payday, body herking and jerking like he just got shocked by an electric eel. Just when you think it's safe to look at the screen, there's McGaha doing his own flaccid Freddy and your heart skips several life giving beats. As a matter of fact, most of Speed Lovers exists as a showcase for things that McGaha finds fascinating. One of those ideals is amateur acting. Instead of going with pros, the director calls up real life racer Fred Lorenzen and gives him an overheated sex life and an underheated personality to boot. Lorenzen is actually pretty good, giving decent line readings to dialogue that dipstips would find foolish. The rest of the cast realizes how preposterous this all is, and plays their parts with tongue firmly planted in their butt cheek. If there is one single saving grace for this otherwise weird waste of time, it's the race footage. Skipping the usual boredom of endless crash-free laps, Speed Lovers argues that most speedway titles are won by a simple process of elimination. As Lorenzen rounds the track, every other driver wipes out in more and more spectacular ways. Fred doesn't win because he's the fastest or the bravest. No, he takes the day because his car didn't crash and burn like all the others. Sadly, most of McGaha's intentions can be seen strewn along the infield when it comes to this vanity project.
When viewed in light of the dour, dark noir notions of Thunder in Dixie, however, Speed Lovers looks like a pert pop art poem. Using its monochrome setting for menace instead of merriment, our creepy character study features the one time friends and racing partners Ticker Welsh and Mickey Arnold. After a horrible accident leaves Mickey in a coma, and Ticker's fiancé deader than a cracked manifold, the driving duo suddenly splinters, and as one lays lost to the world, the other starts planning a painful revenge. Ticker's seething sense of retribution has him all messed up inside, and such brooding can only lead to bad, mean mad thoughts. When Mickey finally recovers, Ticker gets a brilliant idea - he will kill his former friend, making it look like "an accident" while they race. This means that the tripwire Welsh will have to find another racket to drive for. In the meanwhile, Mickey's wife wants nothing to do with his return to the living...or the track. She's sore from the innuendo revolving around the accident, and can't imagine that her man is safe, especially with a livid ex-partner plotting to plant him. Everyone hopes that new gal pal Karen Cassidy will keep Ticker from staying "ticked" off, but it seems readily apparent that there will be some substantial Thunder in Dixie once the big 400 is run.
For everything that is goofy and dumb in Speed Lovers, there is an overpowering serious streak in Thunder in Dixie. Designed more like the sinister mysteries of the great noir era, this black and white descent into the human heart of darkness is one monumental melodrama. With every performance peaked for maximum maudlin RPM and the liquor and laments flowing as fast and furious as a stock car entering a high-banked turn, this is one unbelievably moody movie. Of primary note is lead lummox Mike Bradford. Though he never had much of an acting career beyond this one-off racing film, Bradford really lays on the Method madness. You become dead convinced that he is hopelessly homicidal, and that creates a sense of suspense with almost every move he makes. Even the look in his dead, dopey eyes as he flashes back to the reasons why he's so angry is crammed with dread and dire consequences. With his character at the heart of the story, you just know something is gonna die. It's not a matter of why, it's a matter of when. On the other side of the storyline is genial and chipper Harry Millard. A frequent face in early 60s television, he has the leading man looks that helped support Ticker's inferred ire. Indeed, you can see how his Mickey Arnold persona perplexes his wounded wife Lili. Judy Lewis plays the role so perfectly, she seems moments away from imploding, adrift in a sea of conflicting emotions and underwritten motives.
But director William T. Naud knows that people come to the movies for more than fast cars racing around an oval track. There has to be intrigue and excitement, ambiguity and amusement. As a result, he occasionally stops the pot boiling to take the audience to a weird wooden bar in the middle of nowhere, the kind of place that features an oily goombah crooner and a "dancer" know for her famous - or make that 'infamous' - chichi dance. In truth, the song stylings suck and bodkin is barely bared as stripper Sheri Benet drops a couple of excess scarves, and that's about it. Naturally, all this scalded nonsense leads to the big finale, and just like the mighty McGaha before him, Naud knows that race fans want to see wrecks, and plenty of them. While not quite as impressive in monochrome as they are in color, the frequently flying and flipping cars make for an interesting last act. Now, if only it didn't take up 20 minutes of the overall running time, we might have something powerful. Instead, Thunder in Dixie plays like a tragedy tempered by a bunch of good old boys trying to supe up their gear ratios. Along with its rear projection ridiculousness (Ticker and Mickey both look like they are headed to Sunday services instead of running in and between a parking lot of cars at 130+ MPH) and its emotive excesses, this sour Southern Gothic will really cap your sparking plugs.
Taken together, these so-called Speedsploitation classics are a true twisted treat - just not for the reasons the filmmakers intended. It is funny to watch these pre-professional pit crew examples of the sport of stock car racing, especially in light of the showboating entertainment entity known as our modern NASCAR. In the decades before Dale Earnhardt cemented the legacy of the activities lethal nature, the most anyone knew about their local speedway was the wacky commercials occasionally playing out over the AM radio, announcer offering the upcoming event in a series of echo-filled hyperboles. While Thunder in Dixie and Speed Lovers shows the circuit as a cutthroat, corporate driven diversion, there are none of the car tagging advertising tendencies that have turned the current auto world into a Midwestern Madison Avenue. The vehicles are named after their owners - usually some fat cat fat back tycoon - and have their driver's handle's clearly written on the hood. When Fred Lorenzen is looping around the track, we can easily follow his progress since his moniker is in full view the entire time. Along with a chance to hear professional announcers call the race (they manage to make it exciting in a European football kind of way) these films are really just car lover's curios. As examples of real exploitation, well...
It has to be said, though. Something Weird Video sure unearths some doozies when they want to. Speed Lovers and Thunder in Dixie are both presented in near pristine 1.33:1 full screen transfers that really show off both films' divergent facets. The Kodachrome cacophony of Lovers is complimented and offset by the dark, disturbing monochrome of Dixie, and aside from a few scratches here and there, both movies look amazing. The images are so clear that they give away the less professional stock car footage every time it shows up onscreen. On the sound side, it's worth noting that the Dolby Digital Mono makes the revving engines and screeching tires that much more spine-tingling, while the dialogue is easily decipherable, even in the middle of an action-packed sequence.
On the bonus features side, SWV does it's usual bang-up job, delivering a collection of trailers and a selection of archival short subjects that make the seemingly fleeting race craze appear that much more substantial. Of the collection of entertaining ads, Racers from Hell and Road of Death really stand out. In addition, we get a glimpse of how the Barbara Stanwyck/Clark Cable speed sudser To Please a Lady became Red Hot Wheels. As for the mini-movies, we are treated to a trio of timeless turds. A couple of precocious brats learn that chatting automobiles never shut up in the educational outing The Talking Car. Aetna strives to get drivers to prepare for unseen conflicts in the Drivavision Safety Short Split Second Decisions. Finally, three barely dressed babes break down on the side of the road, and doff much of their garments to make the necessary repairs in Hot Rod Girls.
In the end, the most nakedness we get in this entire collection of car racing ridiculous is the standard peep show loop featuring ladies who consistently drop bra for any and all reasons. Once again, this highlights the perplexing place this kind of movie has in the exploitation arena. Sure, something like Barry Mahon's misguided kiddie masterpieces The Wonderful Land of Oz and Jack and the Beanstalk can be easily distinguished inside the world of smut, sin and sex, but try and wedge in a couple of arch automotive melodramas and that old familiar itch starts circling your scalp. Before we go bonkers, let's just say that Thunder in Dixie's ersatz erotic dancer and Speed Lovers collection of bikini clad lovelies meet the requirements of the relatively picky raincoat crowd, and just leave it at that. In truth, no matter how you categorize these bizarre bits of piston-powered preposterousness, there is a lot to enjoy in the world of racing. After all, how can millions of Confederate flag waving aficionados be wrong? If the South does rise again, it will be with dozens of stock cars leading the way. And if we wonder how we became a NASCAR nation, this DVD will be the crazed cautionary tale that showed us where it started. Let's hope we pay heed to its four horsepower of the apocalypse warning signs, before it's too late.
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