Cripes, how I need a shower.
Image and Something Weird Video have repackaged four previously released discs - including three double features - as the dubiously titled "Drive-In Classics Collection." "Classics" these certainly are not, but those with a hankering for retro sleaze might find something to enjoy with these tales of racers, rednecks, yokels, inbreds, moonshiners, gee-tar pickers, gators, stranglers, maniacs, and deviants of every type. Oh, and we get Herschell Gordon Lewis not once, not twice, but three grime-coated times, for those who inexplicably find that as a plus. These are barrel-bottom regional programmers of questionable morality, looking like they were filmed not on celluloid, but on some sort of bacon grease.
Indeed, if you don't feel like you need a long, hot shower after these movies, there's something wrong with you. But you already know there's something wrong with you, because you saw the words "Something Weird Video" and "deviants" and "H.G. Lewis" and you're still reading. So let's get going, disc by disc:
Disc One: "The Speed Lovers" (1968) and "Thunder in Dixie" (1964)
We start with the best - that is, the least terrible - films in the set; it's all downhill after this, folks, and the hill's not too big in the first place.
"The Speed Lovers" is a nutty racetrack melodrama that's a deranged sort of vanity piece for writer/director/producer/star William F. McGaha. McGaha only made three films, including one where he played Jesus as a stoned biker; one wonders why his career never took off after that.
In "Lovers," casts himself as Scott Clayton, son of the most famous mechanic on the racing circuit. But Scott has no interest in working in the pits - he's convinced he'd be the best racer around, if only someone would give him the chance to drive. That's when he gets mixed up with an Atlanta mobster, the impossibly named Pinkerton Bentley (David Marcus), who concocts a scheme to fix the next big race and seduces Scott with go-go girls and piles of cash.
At first glance, "Lovers" is your average sub-lousy amateur production, with crummy camera work, terrible acting, and laughable dialogue. But McGaha manages to pull some mighty weirdness out of his incompetence, be it in the oddly composed close-ups, the goofy musical interludes, the ridiculous comedy that sneaks into the corners (while escaping Bentley's clutches, Scott pauses to make out with his niece), or the almost-brilliant decision to make Scott the least likeable hero imaginable. The "kid" (a term used lightly; McGaha doesn't look a thing like the fresh-faced youth he's supposed to be) is a narcissistic, whiny braggart with a one-track mind, interrupting every conversation to inform others just how awesome he is - and everyone in the film hates him for it.
That's a brave move, making yourself the jerk, and in his crazy way, McGaha pulls it off. And he doesn't even bother properly redeeming Scott in the end; there's some minor redemption, but it seems out of necessity (something's gotta happen in the story sometime, right?) than any character arc.
The whole picture is just so damn bizarre, and I haven't even mentioned the surprisingly competent performance from racer Fred Lorenzen (playing himself, in a larger-than-it-should-be role), or the deliciously gratuitous shots of ladies parading around in lingerie, or the painfully overlong racing stock footage that pads the running time, or the dialogue filled with painful car-related puns, or Billy Lee Riley's awful theme song. You just can't turn away.
Speaking of overlong race sequences, "Thunder in Dixie" opens and closes with absurdly lengthy footage of two races. (It's a full ten minutes before the story bothers to get going.) To our surprise, the closing sequence is actually quite involving, with plenty of thrilling crashes, some last-minute character work, and a goofy as hell finale, all (almost) making up for the dopey dramatics that fill the middle.
Here's the set-up: racers Mickey (Harry Millard) and Ticker (Mike Branford) were the best of pals, until Mickey stepped out one night with Ticker's wife and got into a nasty crash, putting Mickey in a coma and Mrs. Ticker in a grave. Now that Mickey's back among the living, Ticker has sworn revenge, hoping to kill his former friend on the racetrack (and if he takes himself out, too, so be it). Mickey's wife (Judy Lewis) and Ticker's new gal pal (Nancy Berg) both hope they can cool the flames, but it looks like Ticker won't calm down until the big race.
It's less exciting than it sounds. Naud goes for full-on sour and dour in the middle section, full of sulking and arguing. Not even a lighthearted scene featuring Sheri Benet and "her exotically famous chichi dance" can escape the downbeat tone; the camera keeps cutting away to grumbling and moping.
The finale churns up just enough excitement to keep things from falling completely apart, but not enough to actually save the picture. And while it's nice to see someone in the "speedsploitation" genre try something with a little depth, "Dixie" just isn't deep enough.
Video and Audio
Both films are presented in their original 1.33:1 format ("Lovers" in color, "Dixie" in black and white). Aside from some major print damage (scratches, mainly) that pops up during the race footage in "Lovers" (a likely sign the footage was obtained on the cheap), both prints look surprisingly decent here, with fine detail and, with "Lovers," strong colors.
The mono soundtracks, meanwhile, are fairly muddy and flat - pretty much how they've always sounded, actually. No subtitles are provided.
"The Talking Car" (12:23) is a classroom short film in which the world's creepiest talking car (imagine a psychotic, semi-literate Lightning McQueen) teaches a boy and girl about pedestrian safety. Look both ways, kids!
Remember those first-person films used in drivers ed simulators? If not, "Split-Second Decisions" (22:45; 2.35:1 flat letterbox) will remind you. Here, student drivers learn how to deal with a road full of idiots who like to back out without looking.
In the vintage stag party jigglefest "Hot Rod Girls" (5:32), a trio of beauties break down on the highway, and they figure the best way to fix it is to strip down to their delicates and prance around. I have no objections with that decision.
Most interesting here is a slideshow gallery (16:47) of drive-in posters and other promotional art, set to the non-stop chatter of Elmer Snodgrass, a DJ providing between-show music and sales pitches at Greenville, South Carolina's Skyland Drive-In. Snodgrass informs guests of such amenities as the restrooms and playground, then does his darnedest to sell visitors to the delicious concession stand offerings. Snodgrass is a hell of a pitchman, and listening to him roll is a hoot.
The "Speed Lovers" trailer, two TV spots for "Dixie," and trailers for six other hot rod oldies round out the disc.
Disc Two: "Swamp Girl" (1971) and "Swamp Country" (1966)
From the racetrack to the wetlands. Our second double feature opens with "Swamp Girl," a gritty little number starring Simone Griffeth as a mysterious girl who's never been out of the swamp, making her something of a local legend. Her backstory is a tasteless delight: she was raised by the black man who rescued her from the clutches of an abortionist/slave trader. "Pa," by the way, worked for the abortionist/slave trader because he was hiding out from the cops after stealing a pair of blue jeans years earlier. Of course.
The local sheriff discovers her one day and convinces her to accept his help adjusting to modern life (well, as modern as backwoods Florida can get), but along the way, an escaped convict and her boyfriend arrive and demand our Swamp Girl lead them to safety. Meanwhile, the convict's parents get help from some local yokels in hunting through the swamp.
Aside from a few particularly nasty moments (including an axe to the head), "Swamp Girl" remains squarely within the confines of its original "GP" rating, which may disappoint sleaze fans expecting more to the eventual catfight between our heroine and her captor than just muddy writhing. It's also at times a bore, a tiresome slog with a bunch of rednecks through the Okefenokee.
Slightly more entertaining is "Swamp Country," although its best asset is its badness. The film offers up two plotlines that criss and cross throughout. First, a doughy salesman is mistakenly accused of murder, and he hightails it into the swamp; it turns out he's a former military type and an expert in jungle survival - but don't expect "First Blood" here, as his exploits are minimal. He does, however, rescue a little girl from a bobcat, and there's a glorious insanity to the realization that the producers actually put the little girl and the hungry bobcat on set together and hoped for the best. (There's also a scene involving bear wrestling, so common sense was probably not a priority while filming.)
The rescue puts the doughy escapee on good ground with the girl's older sister (Carolyn Gilbert) and mother (Sue Casey), and the fact that mom and daughter look the same age and look very much alike is enough to turn most of the picture into a ball of confusion. This leads us to our second main plot, in which the older daughter finds herself in a love triangle between the bland sheriff (Rex Allen) and the greasy musician (David DaLie) who sings obnoxious tunes like "I'm a Misfit," a shortlister for worst movie song ever.
The two storylines rattle around without really going anywhere for far too long, although the conclusion to the murder mystery is so poorly handled and so awkwardly acted that it's sort of your reward for sitting through the slow bits.
Video and Audio
"Girl" looks mighty lousy in its original 1.33:1 format, with muted, dreary colors and a soft look that makes everything just plain ugly. "Country" is even worse, in a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 letterbox transfer riddled with scratches and splices; colors are fades and murky. The mono soundtracks aren't much better: "Girl" is particularly mucky, while "Country" sounds decent enough to get by, especially in its musical interludes.
The country-fried short "Swamp Virgin" (24:39) - an edited-down version of the 1947 feature "Untamed Fury" - is a variety pack of swamp adventure, filled with hicks, gators, and lovely locals; most notorious here is a sequence in which boys are used as gator bait.
"Swamp Buggy Race" (5:22) offers amusing mud-soaked footage of one of those "build your own swamp boat" races.
A slideshow gallery (3:59) of exploitation posters and art is accompanied with a collection of vintage radio ads for various low budget flicks.
Trailers for seven sweaty not-so-classics (including one for "Swamp Girl") round out the disc.
Disc Three: "This Stuff'll Kill Ya!" (1971) and "The Year of the Yahoo!" (1972)
The rest of the set deals with Herschell Gordon Lewis, an exploitation Z-movie pioneer who has his fans, but I'm not one of them. His films are shoddy and amateurish at best and completely unwatchable at worst; his technical incompetence is matched by few and makes sitting through a complete feature to be an unbearable chore. (Indeed, it took me a full week to make it through the two films presented here.)
This disc deals with two of Lewis' redneck rarities. "This Stuff'll Kill Ya!" is a kissin' cousin of Gordon's earlier "Moonshine Mountain," both featuring Gordon regular Jeffrey Allen. Here, Allen plays Rev. Roscoe Boone, leader of a hillbilly church devoted to the promotion of drinkin' and partyin'. Boone is also a moonshine kingpin, wiping out competition (including regular raids on the town's state liquor store) while building his own empire.
In between the lengthy musical numbers (Lewis loves his overlong hoedowns and close-ups of toothless extras), we get attempts at comedy, with Boone delivering ridiculous monologues and relishing in his own hypocrisies. But the lighthearted attitude is marred by an unyielding creepiness as Lewis unwisely opts to mix in his standard shock violence. A newlywed is gang-raped (off screen, but still), another woman is stoned to death (on screen), and two others are crucified. Never mind that Lewis does a terrible job setting any of this up (the stoning sequence is mostly incoherent), or that his script attempts to keep Boone on the good side by having him denounce the murders; by this point, we're so put off by the ill-fitting brutality that we're in no mood to chuckle.
It also doesn't help that Allen's performance - which permeates almost every frame - is grating to no end, while the story absentmindedly stumbles around with no clear focus. It's as if Lewis wanted to make another moonshine flick and figured any old arrangement of cheap jokes and shrill characters would suffice.
The same goes for "Year of the Yahoo!" Long thought lost, this recently uncovered follow-up to "Stuff" is often labeled clever and daring, thanks to the screenplay by Allen Kahn, a copyrighter at Lewis' ad firm who previously penned "The Wizard of Gore."
But no, no, no, no, no. This is not clever, this is not daring. The story - in which a popular country singer (Claude King, fresh of "Swamp Girl," of all films) is tapped to run for Senate - aims to be a winking take-down of politics, showing with cold cynicism how publicists rule the behind-the-scenes goings-on in Washington. Yet all the jokes are obvious, all the punchlines delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, all the ideas so very tame in that vague, safe, lifeless stand-up comic, "those idiots on Capitol Hill sure don't know what they're doing!" way.
The film comes close to cleverness once or twice, especially in a running gag involving an empty-headed TV commercial featuring the "inspirational" image of the candidate on horseback. But even the best ideas here aren't strong enough, and Lewis doesn't have the talent to turn this into the "with-it" counterculture comedy he thinks he's making. Every scene drags, with shoddy blocking and performances that alternate between wooden and tediously over-the-top. (And, this being a Lewis movie, we have to have at least one mood-ruining moment, which comes when the candidate's girlfriend is savagely attacked by hired goons.) When the film tries to wrap itself up with a big pile of sincerity, it completely collapses.
Lewis fans may celebrate this film finally being made available, but after closer inspection, it seems it would've been better to keep this one hidden.
Video and Audio
The 1.33:1 full frame transfers for both films are marred with scratches and other print flaws, including damage that runs through just about every scene. Colors are faded and detail is murky.
The clumsy Dolby mono soundtracks don't help, either - both movies feature stretches where dialogue is indecipherable, although this is more due to Lewis' technical incompetence than the transfer itself. No subtitles are provided.
Daniel Krogh, a frequent Lewis crew member through the late 60s/early 70s (more to the point, he served as camera operator on "Stuff" and "Yahoo"), provides commentary tracks on both films. Fans may have preferred Gordon himself, but Krogh does fine work here, and his memories are highly detailed.
Billed as a musical short, "The Old Grey Goose is Dead" (3:46) is actually an excerpt from "Moonshine Mountain," with the cast singing a surprisingly not-awful version of the folk song.
The nudie cutie short "Naked Moonshine" (10:19) finds three Brooklyn gals (their accents are more laughable than sexy) who whip up some moonshine, throw a party, and eventually get plenty nude.
Elmer Snodgrass returns with another round of Skyland Drive-In announcements (4:26), this time set to a slideshow of Lewis-related promotional art.
Eight Lewis trailers - including the previews for "Stuff" and "Yahoo" - round out the disc.
Disc Four: "Two Thousand Maniacs!" (1964)
If you Lewis fans weren't happy with my take on "Stuff" and "Yahoo," you'll really be upset with my thoughts on our final film, "Two Thousand Maniacs!" It's considered Lewis' best work - Lewis himself calls it his favorite - and it remains a milestone in the world of cinematic splatter. It's also just plain gawdawful.
"Maniacs" tells the story of the quaint town of Pleasant Valley, somewhere in the not-so-deep Deep South. They're celebrating their centennial, and they've conned a couple carloads of Yankees into staying for a few days as guests of honor. Little do the outsiders know it's all a ploy to kill them all as part of some Civil War retribution.
Yes, "Maniacs" is one of Lewis' most technically accomplished works, but that's like going to a farm and picking out which cowpie smells the least. All of Lewis' drawbacks are front and center: inept camerawork, awkward dialogue, cheap sound, lousy acting, etc. The only plus is the somewhat-inventiveness that pops up in the film's third act, when (minor spoiler alert, like it matters) Lewis' script drops in a steaming pile of paranormal goings-on inspired by, of all things, "Brigadoon."
But the spooky mystery that plays out in the final half-hour is still plenty stupid (it's riddled with holes and barely works beyond the initial "what the hell?" reaction), and it works only because it provides a reprieve from the rest of the story, which is a clumsy attempt at hixploitation and freak-out violence that can't make up its mind between genuine creepiness and off-the-wall black humor, ultimately working as neither. (Although I must tip my hat to Lewis for attempting a sequence as ludicrous as the one involving a giant papier-mâché rock and a contraption that looks like it was crafted by the ACME Corporation for catching roadrunners; one assumes giant papier-mâché anvils were out of Lewis' budget.) Things get doubly muddled when, midway through, it's suggested that the hootin' n' hollerin' townsfolk might not be as into the murders as they initially seemed, and a few might actually be regretting their actions - an angle that's not properly studied by Lewis, and as such never fits with the freewheeling vibe of other scenes.
"Maniacs" offers all of Lewis' trademarks at full volume, which might be why the film has so many admirers. But it's such a cheapjack piece of junk, lacking in any sort of redeeming value - it's not scary, or funny, or thrilling, or even interesting. It's boring, it's shrill, and it's obnoxious. The ultimate H.G. Lewis movie, indeed.
Video and Audio
Perhaps thanks to "Maniacs" being the best known movie in this set, the 1.33:1 transfer is the best here, free of the damage that's so prevalent in the other films. Color is fairly sharp and detail is fine. There's a softness and grain inherent in the source itself, but all things considered, it's about as decent as the movie could possibly look.
Less exciting is the Dolby mono soundtrack, which once again is muddy and flat - and again, it's a problem with the film's lousy technical work and not the transfer itself. A French mono dub is included. No subtitles are provided.
Lewis and producer David F. Friedman take on commentary duties, accompanied by Something Weird Video honcho Mike Vraney and Jimmy Maslon, a producer who worked on Gordon's "Blood Feast 2." The mood is light and friendly, and everyone's chock full of information - although in pure Lewis fashion, some of the participants are sitting too far from the microphone to be consistently audible.
The film's trailer (2:16) opens with a request for parents to escort their children out of the theater for the next two minutes, lest they be scarred with bad acting, lousy narration, and irritating music. Oh, and violence, too.
A set of "rare outtakes" (16:28) collects various unused footage shot during production, offering a behind-the-scenes peek at the film. There's no audio to this footage, so the soundtrack simply loops the movie's music, plus the occasional dialogue clip.
Another slideshow gallery of exploitation posters and art (6:48) - this one minus Mr. Snodgrass (or any audio at all) - rounds out the set.
Note: All extras on all four discs are marked with a Something Weird "bug" in the lower right corner. The translucent logo is sometimes unnoticeable, sometimes all too distracting. (I understand the point of such a bug - the company does need to protect its public domain property - but it's still often annoying.) All extras are presented in 1.33:1 full frame, except where indicated.
A catch-all preview for Something Weird Video plays as each disc loads.
For fans of exploitation, cheese, and sleaze - at least those that don't already own these discs separately - the low price tag and impressive supply of bonus material might be enough to make this a worthy purchase. But I can't quite recommend it, even to those that enjoy movies as bad as these. The prints used several of these films are horrible (although some grindhouse fans take that as a plus), Something Weird's "bug" mars the value of those otherwise quality extras, nothing new has been added to this repackaging, and the three Lewis films fill space that could've been taken by more entertaining efforts. Trash aficionados will do fine to simply Rent the first two discs.