Thursday, November 7, 2013

Netflix'd :: Clearing Out the Instant Que :: Taking a Ride Down Showtime's Rebel Highway (1994)

Back in 1994, American International Pictures kinda had a mini-revival on premium cable via Showtime's anthology series, Rebel Highway. Under the guiding hand of producers Lou Arkoff (son of AIP's co-founder, Samuel Z. Arkoff,) and Debra Hill (Halloween, Escape from New York), all ten episodes were based on a sordid and motley bunch of vintage AIP juvenile delinquent and high-octane exploitation releases from the 1950s; period pieces still, but with more *ahem* lax standards and practices. Or, as the younger Arkoff put it: "If you made Rebel Without a Cause today, it would be more lurid, sexier, and much more dangerous -- and you definitely would've had Natalie Wood's top off." (From the Rebel Highway Wikipedia page.) 

With the only caveat being they had to be set in the '50s and fit into a programming slot, lengthwise, to make this happen, Arkoff and Hill sent out feelers to several top-notch directors, offering them a decent 12 day shooting budget, with full creative control over the script, cast and crew choices on whatever title they personally chose to pluck from AIP's back catalog to remake. Well, not outright remakes, mind you, but films 'inspired by' the original title. Or, more than likely, these new adaptation were based on the old posters for these films just like American International had done so successfully for years and years, where the promotional art rendered by Al Kallis or Reynold Brown came first, and, if they drew booking interest, only then did a movie get made. Several big name directors answered the call, along with a few young turks, with casts littered by the established brat-packers of the day -- but it was some fairly new faces, who now look very familiar, that really left their mark on the series. Throw in some Brylcreem, tailfins, nicotine, rocket-bras, leather, chrome, switchblades, and a lot of scorched asphalt, with a killer soundtrack as a cherry on top of it all (Fats Domino, Link Wray, and a metric ton of obscure rockabilly from the likes of Jody Reynolds and The Scarlets), some episodes prove better than others, yes, but thus far I've found nary an outright dud in the whole bunch.

Serving as the opening salvo, Robert Rodriguez's RoadRacers is one hellacious opening act with Dude Delaney (David Arquette) as our hot-rodding rebel rouser, who has just about had it with the Squaresville he calls home. Hounded by a psychotic police sergeant (William Sadler) and his even more psychopathic son (Jason Wiles), both looking to settle old scores, this sets up several staggering vignettes of ratcheting tension, territorial pissings, and fateful decisions until it all finally explodes with a final, fatal rumble. Along for the inevitable ride on this road to ruin are Selma Hayek as Dude's girlfriend, Donna, but the movie is absolutely stolen out from under everybody by a barely recognizable John Hawkes as our hero's toadie and street corner prophet, Nixer, who is currently obsessed with the new movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whose themes of coerced conformity and homogenization Rodriguez uses brilliantly as a framing device to help finally prod our hero down the wrong, self-destructive path. 

All of the director's hyper-active quirks are present and accounted for, and if the episode has one flaw, and it's nearly fatal, is all the 'time-outs' Rodriguez takes to focus solely on the fetishistic ritual of Dude striking a pose, greasing up the ducktail, popping a Winchester, and lighting an over-modulated match that stopped being "kewl" and started being downright buffoonish about the fourth or fifth time thru (and I stopped counting at 12), which kinda derails the mood and it just wasn't necessary. A major minor quibble, because the rest delivers a sizable entertaining payload.

Next, director John Milius liberally mixed in a massive dose of Hot Rods to Hell (1967) into his version of Motorcycle Gang, where once more a family in transit is menaced by pack of degenerate two-wheeling hooligans when the club leader (Jake Busey) takes a shine to their daughter (Carla Gugino). But even before the rubber hits the road we're already made privy to several family skeletons. Seems the Morris' marriage is already on the brink due to the overly-stoic father (Gerald MCraney), who hasn't been the same since coming home from the war, always distancing himself from everyone due to some lingering PTSD; this detachment causes the emotionally unstable mother (Elan Oberon) to find comfort in the arms of another man, which only makes the wedge driven between her and her daughter, who knows about the affair, even worse; and frankly, it was bad enough already due to mom's vanity and the lingering jealousy over the misconception of being constantly upstaged by her rapidly blossoming offspring. Hoping a fresh move to California will help solve all their problems, somewhere in the desert, they run afoul of this predatory pack of heroin smugglers, who have a history of kidnapping, raping, and murdering unwary waitresses from many a roadside diner. And soon enough, these thugs engineer another smash and grab before heading off to Mexico. And when the authorities on both sides of the border prove worthless, it's up to dear old dad to tap into some old training and unleash hell to save his daughter, his family, and, ultimately, his marriage. 

I know Milius grew up immersed in the surfing culture of southern California, which kinda shows, here, through his palpable disdain for the bikers and beatniks our nuclear family unit encounters during this trial by fire. In fact, he kind of thumbs his nose at the whole genre, epitomized in the scene where the daughter, innocent, bored, and just maybe looking for a ride on the wild side, almost falls for the roguish greaser's line of bullshit only to be rewarded with a sexual assault followed by the threat of a gang bang. (The fact that she is saved by her Fabian pin, a stand up guy, sure, but definitely the establishment's answer to Elvis Presley, only adds insult to injury.) Oh yeah, here, Milius is squarely on the side of law and order, especially when you have to take it into your own hands to defend what is yours. Whether you agree or disagree, Motorcycle Gang does provide an interesting counterpoint to all the other glorification tales of rebels, delinquents, and rock 'n' rollers. Personally, I think the set-up of simmering hostility and smoldering lust plays out better than the vengeful payoff. And the whole thing is saved thanks to the efforts of McRaney, Gugino, Busey and Oberon in front of the camera, making up for Milius' too heavy a hand behind it.

Meanwhile, Mary Lambert's Dragstrip Girl is a wildly disjointed love letter to the forbidden teen romance that fueled a lot of these exploitation pieces. Here, on the wrong side of the tracks we find Johnny Ramirez (Mark Dacascos), a Chicano car hop, who also ramrods a low yield but extremely effective car theft ring with several of his cohorts (including a young Raymond Cruz). Johnny lives with his wheel-chair bound brother (Augusto Sandino) under the supervision of their 'aunt' Blanche (Traci Lords, doing a passable impersonation of Mamie Van Doren doing a passable impersonation of Marilyn Monroe), who runs a brothel out of her bedroom that her 'boys' constantly spy on through several holes in the plaster. (And how she or her clientele cannot hear their constant derisive giggling is beyond me.) Anyhoo, longing for something above his station, Johnny soon becomes infatuated with Laura Bickford (Natasha Gregson Wagner, daughter of Natalie Wood), a girl from the suburbs, much to the chagrin of her letter-jacket wearing beau. Seeing her as the key to getting everything he wants, meaning wealth and standing, turns out this girl who has everything is tired of the same old thing and looking for something 'money can't buy.' And after a fairly creepy stalking sequence, Johnny mistakes this confession for wanting something more dangerous (and he would've known different if he'd only read the diary he stole earlier), and so, he uses one of the stolen cars to impress his new girl at the drag races, which brings on a ton of heat from the cops -- not only on him but his soon to be former friends. 

Alas, this tale was destined to end tragically, as Johnny chucks everything, not for the girl, or t'woo wuv, but for what the girl can give him, which, when you consider how he treats his old girlfriend, betrays his friends, gets his brother killed, and whether Laura loves him or not is completely irrelevant, because, I don't care how diehard a romantic you are, you cannot change the fact that Johnny is a self-serving asshole of astronomical proportions. Known mostly for directing Madonna's breakout music videos, Lambert's effort here was trying for the same stylized aesthetic but wound up with something a little off-kilter that's hampered by a strange candy-coating that leaves the weird parts not weird enough, the romantic bits too awkward, and the sleazy parts not sleazy enough, leaving you with a sense that Dragstrip Girl had a lot of promise left unfulfilled. No. Check that. Not unfulfilled. Misfired. An entertaining enough misfire, but a misfire just the same.

Speaking of misfires, Jonathan Kaplan's Reform School Girl probably comes off a little too sweet for its own good. Strange, considering this is the same guy who gave us the ultimate movie about disaffected youth with the highly nihilistic Over the Edge (1979). It starts with an introduction to Donna Patterson (Aimee Graham), a good girl, who works as a waitress, desperately trying to save enough money to get her and her little sister out of their lecherous uncle's house. (Their real parents died in a car crash.) Unfortunately for her, she's set up on a disastrous blind date with a young turk named Vince (Matt LeBlanc); and I say disastrous because it ends with a fatal hit and run, with Vince ditching the stolen car and Donna at the scene of the crime. Unable to provide the last name of the driver, Donna is convicted on manslaughter charges, but, thanks to a clean record otherwise, she is sentenced to a girl's reformatory for rehabilitation instead of the state pen. 

What follows never really strays from the usual women in prison tropes, this time with a juvenile twist. You've got the usual learning curve, treacherous snitches, food fights, time spent in the hole, and a predatory warden (Carolyn Seymour) looking for athletes to populate the institution's track team. Wait. Track team? Yes, a track team, which explains why the behind the bars antics are dumped for a bizarre slobs versus snobs third act that is stolen wholesale from two other prison flicks: Michael Mann's The Jericho Mile (1979) and Sidney Poitier's Stir Crazy (1980). There is some intrigue in-between as Donna makes friends and loses friends on the inside, gets into trouble with the grab-fanny staff psychiatrist, and refuses to join up until coerced. (Luckily, she is still able to clandestinely gets her sister out of Dodge and away from both Vince and Mr. Bad Touch.) Along the way, Kaplan also manages the seemingly impossible by having an exploratory lesbian make-out scene in a prison flick without one single iota of salaciousness generated and, dare I say, comes off as kinda sweet. Which is nice, yes, but probably isn't quite what you're looking for in something called Reform School Girl. But! I still dug it and the 'up yours' ending nonetheless.

I don't think anybody can strip the veneer off the 1950s better than Joe Dante. And he does it again here, taking the decade behind the woodshed and beating it senseless with a big, biting farcical club of comedy called Runaway Daughters, which begins with a delightful montage credit sequence culled (I assume) from Dante's The Movie Orgy to give everyone a snapshot of life in the Eisenhower era, which, in spite of what your parents and grandparents tell you, proves just as dysfunctional as any other era. And after another nifty sequence at the local drive-in to introduce our players, our story proper kicks in when a horny teenager (Chris Young) uses the imminent threat of the recently launched Sputnik to finally get into the pants of his girl, Mary (Holly Fields). And when Mary misses her next period, she confronts Bob with the news of his imminent fatherhood, who promptly skips town to join the Navy. When Mary's two best friends, Angie and Laura (Julie Bown, Jenny Lewis), get wind of this treachery, they concoct a bizarre faux kidnapping plot so the three of them can steal a car and skip town to San Diego to head the deadbeat father off at the recruiting station, drag him back home, and make him do the right thing before the whole town knows what happened. But things get a little crazy on the road where out trio encounter a couple of lecherous patrol cops, crazed anti-commie survivalists, and two mad-dog killers. Meanwhile, back home, the parents realize the local cops are idiots and hire a private detective (Dick Miller), who doesn't buy the kidnap plot, to find their errant children. And with the help of one of their boyfriends (Paul Rudd), he's soon hot on their trail; but will he catch them before they catch Bob? Or will they even make it to San Diego at all? 

The answer to all of the above is yes. Yes they do. And it ends disastrously for one of them but I will leave it to you to find out who. Runaway Daughters would make a great double feature with Matinee (1993), Dante's cinematic ode to the next decade gone awry. Mostly harmless and quite silly, the whole film comes off as a goof; and taken as goof, it truly is wonderful. Hysterical even. All of Dante's trademark destructive humor is there, along with a ton of welcomed cameos (Roger and Julie Corman, Fabian, and even Sam Arkoff shows up), the usual stock players (Miller, Christopher and Dee Wallace Stone, Belinda Belasky, and Robert Picardo), and the usual film references and inside jokes. (The family names are (Jim) Nicholson, (Lou) Rusoff, (Eddie L.) Cahn, and (Alex) Gordon, all familar to American International junkies like myself, and keep your eyes out for the AIP food market and gas station.) The third act is kinda leaking water, and there's a twist that resolves itself a little too cheaply, but, eh, I'll just roll with it. And besides, I was too busy laughing to really even notice.

Before I wrap this up, I would also like to commend Arkoff and Hill for the dedication that finished every film, paying tribute to the late, great James H. Nicholson, who was the creative force behind American International, and Lou Rusoff, who penned the majority of those scripts that first put AIP on the map.

Adapting their feature films to TV was nothing new for American International Pictures. Larry Buchanan did a bunch of remakes back in the 1960s that netted us Zontar the Thing from Venus and Attack of the the Eye Creatures. And Cinemax would follow in Showtime's footsteps in 2001 by re-imagining some of AIP's sci-fi output (Teenage Caveman, Earth vs. the Spider), though I found those results pretty odious. But I'm really digging this revisit to the Rebel Highway, so much so that this retrospective will definitely be continued somewhere further up the road as I polish off the rest of the series. Until then, stay cool, Boils and Ghouls.  

Rebel Highway (1994) Drive-In Classics :: Showtime Networks / P: Lou Arkoff, Debra Hill, Willie Kutner, Llewellyn Wells / AP: Llewellyn Wells / D: Allan Arkush, Ralph Bakshi, Joe Dante, Uli Edel, William Friedkin, Jonathan Kaplan, Mary Lambert, John McNaughton, John Milius, Robert Rodriguez

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