Remember the first time you went to the drive-in. Of course, you have to be of a certain age, from a specific generation, and in some cases, a particular part of the country to remember when the local outdoor cinema was all the rage. Though many believe the "passion pit" hit its stride in the '50s and '60s, the '70s saw a major upswing in attendance, mostly due to the influx of late period grindhouse and exploitation fare. For many b-movie makers and certified schlock hounds, the drive-in was the only place they could show their lesser wares. And since most customers really didn't care about what was on the massive 50 ft screen, a title could rack up a nice collection of hormonally driven ticket sales. As part of an ongoing DVD box set compendium, BCI is bringing us what it considers to be the best/worst of the Drive-In Cult Classics. Of the eight movies offered, however, only a couple deserve to be celebrated as the tops in trash. The rest are just garbage.
Eight films - eight divergent storylines. Instead of trying to sum up this box set in a single paragraph, let's look at a simple statement of the plot for each movie featured, beginning with:
The Young Graduates (1971) - a group of high school kids fall into the last phases of the counterculture as the 1960s give way to the slightly less swinging '70s. One girl in particular experiments in areas she should not have explored.
Don't Answer the Phone (1980) - LA is hounded by a serial strangler who sexually assaults and mutilates his victims. As the police try to figure out the identity of the killer, the fiend starts calling a local radio phone-in show.
Brain Twisters (1991) - a video game company uses a local college and a sinister psychologist to develop a mind altering simulation. Unfortunately, the chief side effect leads the test subjects to start killing people.
Death Machines (1976) - an Asian madam genetically alters three martial artists, turning them into the ultimate killing machines. When the mafia sees how effective they are, they become the mob's main hitmen.
Wild Riders (1971) - after killing a girl in Florida, two bikers head to California to hide out. Spying a couple of lonely ladies in a large mansion, they decide to make themselves at home.
The Van (1977) - after graduating high school, a frisky teen spends all his money on a brand new, totally tricked out van. When his buddy runs into financial trouble, he is forced to drag race in order to earn some cash.
Chain Gang Women (1971) - a pair of fugitives from a Georgia work farm make their way across the countryside. First, they stop off to see one of their girlfriends. When she proves unreliable, they take an old farmer and his child bride hostage.
The Specialist (1975) - a crooked lawyer hopes to win a major case against an old client. So he hires a private detective who himself employs a paid escort to sit on the jury and seduce the opposing counsel.
Let's get one thing straight right now - the grindhouse and the drive-in are not interchangeable, synonymous paradigms. Sure, they often showed the same style of motion picture, but one had to think outside the raincoat crowd every once in a while. That's why BCI deserves credit for avoiding the trendy tag and labeling these films what they really are - passion pit petting helpers, nothing more and a whole lot less. Heck, more than a couple of these offerings are from the '80s, not necessarily a bastion of reliable exploitation. While there is a definite sleaze factor involved in most of these b-pics, it's clear that many of the movies presented were solid second tier marquee fodder, something to put on a double bill with a Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a Pom Pom Girls. Looking at them individually, we can see what made the genre tick - sex, boobs, blood, fear, and occasional faux fornication. While a couple are fun in a so lame they're laughable kind of way, most are just nauseating. Let's begin a film by film dissection with:
The Young Graduates: Score - *1/2
There is nothing wrong with a movie that tries to celebrate the free love and open mindedness of the 1960s. Sadly, this irritating coming of age comedy is about five years too late. While it's fun to see the late Bruno Kirby in an early role (and for fans of Breaking Away, a really young Dennis Christopher), the lead actress, one Patricia The Babysitter Wymer is beyond annoying. First off, she's unattractive in a manly, muggly kind of way. Then she speaks in a kind of dated dopey jargon that would have seemed square on Dragnet. And to make matters even worse, the whole film centers around her flibbertigibbet need to have sex with older men - like her high school photography teacher. Gross! Anyway, there is some creepy under-aged (implied) nudity here, and enough bad psychedelic rock music to make you a fan of bubblegum forever. Some may find this fun in a ridiculous, farcical kind of way. Most will just be bored.
Don't Answer the Phone: Score - ***
As slasher style genre efforts go, Don't Answer the Phone is pretty generic. We get the standard psycho set up, a series of rather seedy murders, and a police department that can't quite put the pieces together and capture the killer before bodies start piling up like cordwood. But there are a couple of elements here that raise the level of horror discourse, making what should be mediocre into something quite memorable. The first is the work of the late, great character actor Nicholas Worth. In his mid 40s at the time, the balding, hulky ex-Vietnam Vet strikes an imposing figure as the insane slayer with a combination God/girlie complex. His solo scenes and taunting conversations are just aces. In addition, the work by first time filmmaker Robert Hammer is excellent. He takes a straight ahead, no BS approach to the material, making it seem authentic and unappealing. It's the perfect perspective for such a sick and perverted subject.
Brain Twisters: Score - *
Videogames as inspiration for violence - now THERE'S a new storyline. Sadly, even for its time, this lox like thriller can't capitalize on its premise. Promising suspense but actually delivering stupidity, first time filmmaker Jerry Sanguiliano exposes his inherent weakness as an artist right up front. He can't cobble together two coherent scenes without confusing the holy Hell out of the viewer. One moment we're watching a somnambulistic scientist conduct Commodore 64 level experiments. The next, a sort of chunky lead actress is trying to cover up her obvious secretarial spread. One minute, it's all about the school work. The next, wide eyed college kids are going Jason Voorhees on the campus, PG style. A movie this terrible can only work if it offers lots of breasts and ample blood. Sanguiliano skimps on both. The result is a test of one's will and ability to tolerate cinematic talentlessness. It's easy to assume that many watching this movie will fail.
Death Machines: Score - ***1/2
Oh...my...God. Who made this movie? Either this is someone's idea of a bad joke, the result of a lost wager, or a startling piece of genius masquerading as a horrifically amateurish action film. Writer/director Paul Kyriazi obviously thinks he's making a Westernized take on the Shaw Brothers Hong Kong classics. By hiring individuals who are completely uncomfortable in front of the camera, however, he appears to be going about it all wrong. Mari Honjo is the true standout here. Unable to speak her English lines either literally or phonetically, she reduces the ridiculous dialogue to a series of guttural belches. At least Kyriazi knew when to cut his losses - the Machines themselves barely make a sound. Between the choreographed by a cripple chop sockey sequences to a sole eyewitness whose storyline becomes 85% of the film, Death Machines is undeniably awful. But in a rare case of crap as candy, it goes down incredibly sweet as an entertainment experience.
Wild Riders: Score - **1/2
Starting off stupid and getting more mindless after that, this take on the tradition biker flick turns into Lady in a Cage so quickly that the resulting whiplash will make your neck stiff for days. As bad-ass chopper hogs with a terrible sense of interpersonal appropriateness, Alex Rocco and Arrell Blanton are like two cases of social syphilis just looking for someone to infect. The unlucky duo is played by Elizabeth Knowles and Sherry Bain, and it has to be said that these actresses are literally put through the mill. The latter gets abused by Rocco so frequently that you wonder why she just doesn't jump off the nearest Hollywood hill. Knowles tries to reason with these tactless two wheelers and gets mauled in the process as well. With a bunch of psychobabble substituting for action and an ending that has to be seen to be believed, Wild Riders has some redeeming qualities. The amount of monkey like stubble on Moe Green's face is not one of them, however.
The Van: Score - **
Like a bad joke being told over and over again, this look at van culture circa sometime in the '70s (as an actual teenager in the era, this critics fails to fully recall the entire pimped out passage vehicle craze. CB radios...yes) is a genial, gratuitous goof. Our malformed hero, looking like a clown whose make-up became permanently affixed to his face, spends his downtime drinking and carousing like a sailor on shore leave. Even worse, every gal in the vicinity of his van can't resist the urge to instantly put out. Talk about your motion picture fictions. Anyway, seeing a young Danny Devito playing a car wash bookie is really a hoot and if you like your ladies lithe, unaltered, and constantly topless, this proposed comedy is for you. Looking for legitimate laughs and a narrative that offers something remotely resembling reality? Switch off this stupidity and seek out a neo-classic like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But in the grand tradition of wasted Saturday nights at the old passion pit, The Van is inexplicably fun.
Chain Gang Women: Score - **
When Lee Frost worked in the sick and the twisted, he often came up with a winner. This is man, after all, who helmed the notorious Love Camp 7. But this early '70s effort is quite uninspired. There is so much talking and too much attention paid to the everyday life of a bunch of smelly prisoners that no amount of nookie could make up for the inertness - and then Frost doesn't even try. Our title ladies don't even show up until 45 minutes in, and then we get a couple of boobs shots and we're out. The entire last act subplot involving the old coot and his under-aged spouse is just downright disgusting (yes, we see the May/December duo in compromising positions), and the last minute twist is more cruel than clever. Certainly there are moments that remind us of the filmmaker's past exploitation wonders, but the chatty crime story is not one of them.
The Specialist: Score - **1/2
Here's an interesting idea hobbled by piss poor execution and a script that doesn't conform to normal cinematic logic. A movie in which a seductress is employed to keep a sharp legal mind off his game could be good clean carnal fun - and actress Ahna Capri seems primed for the part. She's got it where it counts, especially in the 'easy of getting naked' department. The rest of the cast is capable, with Adam West, John Anderson, and Harvey Jason chewing up the scenery like pros. But writer/director Howard Avedis fails to understand the first thing about plotting or pace. West is seduced and stung about 50 minutes in, leaving over 40 for things to slowly wither and die. This was the mind behind the Connie Stevens sex bomb Scorchy, so you know it's amateurish and incoherent. Then, to make matters worse, the filmmaker offers no clear cut resolution. Instead, he leaves things open and ambiguous, the final shot staying on a stunned West and leaving the audience to determine matters of right and wrong. In the end, there is nothing correct about this mess.
On the visual side of things, BCI offers six of the eight titles in fairly decent 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. Only The Van and Chain Gang Women come in 1.33:1 full screen images. Overall, the picture quality is quite good. Some of the colors are faded and there are elements of age throughout most of the older prints. Still, for movies this rare, and in some cases, this disregarded, the presentation is quite first rate.
Alas, there's not much that can be done with old school Mono mixes, but BCI does try. For the most part, the Dolby Digital recreation of these ancient soundtracks is very good indeed. There are limited defects and an attempt at depth, and the dialogue is always understandable. While the meandering musical styles are ill-served by shallow, tinny transfers, the overall technical specifications are more than acceptable.
BCI is clearly digging up past presentations with this eight disc set. Titles like The Van and Wild Riders offer no other bonus features than a ditzy drive-in simulation. When accessed, we are treated to a Mighty Mouse cartoon, various snack bar ads, and a slew of coming attractions. At the end, we get a pleasant reminder to leave the parking lot with lights out and to replace the speaker before exiting. Death Machines and Brain Twisters are bare bones releases, as are The Young Graduates, Chain Gang Women, and The Specialist. Don't Answer the Phone has a commentary with writer/producer/director Robert Hammer ported over from a previous release. Moderated with gusto by Shane M. Dallman, there's a lot of good information here. If you're looking for a flip disc box set (that's right, two films on each DVD) with limited bonus features, The Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 4 will fit the bill. Anyone looking for a solid set of extras will be wildly disappointed, however.
Applying the law of averages, we have a total of eight films earning the sum of 18 stars. Some basic mathematics dictates a median rating of two and a quarter. That's good enough to earn a Rent It from this reviewer, but nothing more. Frankly, only Don't Answer the Phone and Death Machines are worth your time, and that's only if you like the seediest or smelliest of cinematic cheeses. The rest are all take 'em or leave 'em efforts at best. When BCI puts out something like Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 4, you know there's going to be a bit of hit or miss in the final evaluation. Let's face it - not all old roadshow fare was worth a second look. Some, like a few of the titles here, were barely capable of a first. Still, if you're feeling slightly nostalgic and have nothing better to do than wallow through eight decent to dire offerings, this set has its moments. And remember, not everyday date to the local passion pit ended in 'success', right?