Friday, October 12, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: G is for The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959)

With the pedal already to the metal we open on a couple of souped-up jalopies burning rubber and swapping paint as one driver aggressively tries to prod the other into a drag race. Also, one cannot help but notice both of these drivers are not only teenage hot-rodders, but female teenage hot-rodders. And not one to back down, the challenged, Lois Cavendish (Fair), answers this provocation from her rival, Anita (Anderson), leading her into the drainage aqueducts of what is affectionately known as the L.A. River -- seen in everything ranging from THEM (1954) to Grease (1978) to Terminator 2 (1991), where their clash of engines only intensifies in this concrete canyon.

Then, this down and dirty rocket ride draws the attention of a passing motorcycle cop, who takes up the pursuit. But before he can catch up to them, Lois is able to ditch Anita by leading her through a deep pool of drainage water, which swamps the other girl’s engine, stalls her out, and causes a crash into the barrier wall. And while it looks like Lois has made a clean getaway, odds are pretty good Anita, looking for a little payback, will gladly snitch her out to the cops.

And that’s exactly what happens later once Lois returns to the garage/clubhouse of the Zenith Motor Club, currently playing host to a reporter, Tom Hendry (Bender), who is trying to get a handle on today’s car-obsessed youth culture and perhaps paint them in a better, and less delinquent, light. Leading this tour is Stan (Braddock), who is both the leader of this club and Lois’ boyfriend. Stan also appears to be the one behind the push to legitimize the ZMC by weeding out the troublemakers, meaning no more rumbles, chicken challenges, poker runs, or drags for pinks. And though it appears he has achieved most of these goals, meaning they will soon qualify for a national charter on such things, this may all prove for naught for two reasons: One, they are about to lose their clubhouse due to a lack of dues, meaning no rent money. And two, the only real troublemaker left in the group that could ruin everything is, well, the highly temperamental Lois.

But, the movie pretty much ignores this second issue, to its detriment, perhaps, to concentrate solely on the first instead as Stan does his best to translate all the piston-packin’ gearhead lingo into English for the baffled Hendry and introduce him to the rest of the gang as they all start making with the carbon-dioxide emissions, dig, including the nerdy Dave (McCann) and his even nerdier amazonian girlfriend, Amelia (Pelky); the comic relief couple, Bonzo (Tyler) and Rhoda (Dupon); and a brief cameo by legendary hot-rodder Tommy Ivo, who, along with his girl, Hazel (Scott), go over the specs of his new rail with Hendry just as Lois limps back into the garage.

Stan tries to introduce her, too, but Lois is more interested in laying low until the heat’s off and quickly disappears under her car. Here, Stan reveals to the reporter how Lois built her own car from the ground up all by herself and refuses to let anyone else mess with it. And after the rest all clear out to find some food and strategize on fundraising efforts, that policemen finally catches up to Lois and starts writing the girl up for her multiple moving violations, which will not go over well with Stan at all -- and will most assuredly bring down the wrath of her parents, which could officially put the brakes on Lois’ hot-rodding days for good … And, hey?! Wasn’t there supposed to be a ghost in this movie, too?

From its inception in 1955 as the American Releasing Corporation, the upstart American International Pictures had proven to be the little studio that could, culminating in 1957 when the production and distribution company released 11 double-bills and all of them turned a healthy profit. But just as this minor studio seemed on the verge of becoming a major minor studio things sort of hit a wall in 1958 as their latest batch of films didn’t make near as much money as the last -- and things looked even more dire for 1959.

Now, there were several mitigating circumstances for this lag but the three that loomed largest and threatened the studio with extinction all seemed to hit at once in ‘58. First, exhibitors were getting both nervous and greedy, and therefore were no longer paying the full percentages they owed and pocketed more of the profits. And so, strapped for cash, the studio started making movies even cheaper and more threadbare, resulting in four day wonders like The Astounding She-Monster (1957), or The Brain Eaters (1959) and The Giant Leeches (1959), or their ridiculously stock-footage heavy war pictures like Tank Commandos (1959), Paratroop Command (1959), and Suicide Battalion (1958). And these lack of finances also caused a bit of a brain-drain as AIP lost the services of Alex Gordon, Herman Cohen, and Bert I. Gordon, who all jumped ship over money disputes.

Second, other studios saw the success they were having with these types of genre pictures aimed at teenagers and drive-in crowds and started making their own. And not just the other minors like Allied Artists or Howco, who had pilfered a lot of talent from AIP, but the major studios were also cashing in, too, with Robert L. Lippert churning out Kronos (1957) and Space Master X-7 (1958) for 20th Century Fox and Sam Katzman doing the same for Columbia with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and The Giant Claw (1957). And with the big studio clout behind them, it was easier to get bookings, which threatened to squeeze AIP product out of theaters completely.

And third, and probably most devastating, Hammer Films had released The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and then followed that up with The Horror of Dracula (1958); both dazzling Technicolor Gothic horror romps of flowing blood and tensile cleavage that resulted in box-office windfalls for the studios that imported them. And so, clearly, Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff saw the writing on the wall and realized these old bait and switch cheap-jack black and white double-bills, which had been their buttered bread, just weren’t gonna cut it anymore.

Initially, they shored things up by following in Joseph E. Levine’s footsteps, who had made a killing importing and dubbing over Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956) and Hercules (1958), and would seek out their own foreign product, turning Nel Segno di Roma (Sheba and the Gladiator) into Sign of the Gladiator (1959) and Il terrore dei barbari (Terror of the Barbarians) into Goliath and the Barbarians (1959), which went over huge and, essentially, saved the company. And with the profits from these imports and others, AIP was able to give Roger Corman the green-light to try something different: instead of making two black and white pictures for $150,000 each they would make one color picture in CinemaScope for $300,000 instead.

And so, while the studio madly imported foreign films to save costs, and get more production value per buck, and retooled for color domestically in preparation for The House of Usher (1960), AIP still needed product to fill up their release schedule for 1959; and so, they scoured the couch cushions in the office for as much spare change as they could muster to squeeze out just a few more of those black and white double-bills to plug the gaps between those imports. And while they were searching for quarters, but found mostly just nickels, they also unearthed an old unused script by Lou Rusoff for a proposed film called The Haunted Hot-Rod.

Rusoff was the brother-in-law of AIP co-founder, Sam Arkoff. Hailing from Canada, where he had written for TV and radio, Rusoff made the move to Hollywood in 1950, bouncing around productions before essentially becoming the sole staff writer for AIP in 1955, where he wrote the scripts to match the posters for Day the World Ended (1955), Girls in Prison (1956), and Dragstrip Girl (1957) to name just a few. “More than any other writer, Lou had a real appreciation for what we were trying to do,” said Arkoff. “He understood how to keep costs down by limiting the number of sets and locations. He framed his scripts beautifully into our titles and artwork. And he always kept a sense of humor, which was a real virtue under hectic circumstances."

A bit of a genre mashup, Nicholson, Arkoff and Rusoff had hoped to recapture the comedic gruesomeness of their hit, Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), with The Haunted Hot-Rod by adding some spooks and yuks into a standard teenage potboiler of fast-cars, rumbles, rock 'n' roll, and making-out in the backseat. The problem was there just wasn’t any money to get all that creative, resulting in a rushed and shabby half-assed remake of Rusoff’s own shabby and half-assed Hot Rod Gang (1958), which itself was sort of a shabby and half-assed remake of Dragstrip Girl. Sensing a pattern here.

To helm the picture, they hired William Hole Jr., a journeymen TV director, who could work fast and cheap; and judging by what we get on screen Hole was up to that task. They spent so much time talking about cars in this movie, no one ever actually bothers to drive them -- outside of that opening drag race, and that was pretty sad. In fact, not to get too far ahead of ourselves here, but, screw it, the production was so damned cheap the climatic drag race to finally settle things between Lois and Anita HAPPENS ENTIRELY OFFSCREEN fer cripesakes!

And as for that ghost? Well, it doesn’t show up until the very last reel when the film takes an abrupt left turn from carburetor porn and badly lip-synced musical numbers to haunted house hucksterism. And while the film does contain a haunted hot-rod -- well, sort of, but not really, it, too, doesn’t show up until the very end of that very last reel of the movie. And so, always the title man, Nicholson cooked up an alternative designation: The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959), to help ensure audiences wouldn't get their hopes to high and they would get to see at least something in the movie. Eventually.

Now, one notion AIP always liked to flog in their genre pictures was the burgeoning generation gap, where they tended to side with the younger crowd against the older squares. And on this note The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow actually makes some hay as Lois faces down her belligerent but buffoonish father over her brush with the law. For even though she’s grounded for two weeks it’s easy to see how Lois has her father, Wesley (Smith), wrapped around her little finger when he easily caves to a request of moving a planned party to their house, followed by a sleepover, so she can attend both while still technically serving out her house arrest.

And knowing Lois and Stan are getting pretty serious, Wesley asks if her mother, Alice (Tatum), gave his daughter the *ahem* ‘talk’ yet, and then goes apoplectic when told they have and he wouldn’t believe the things Lois taught her mother about the mating habits of the ‘birds and the bees.’ Again, it’s this relationship between Lois and her beleaguered father and her ‘just roll with it, dear’, mother that proves a rare highlight in Dragstrip Hollow, and the movie is lesser for it once they check out after the slumber party has concluded.

Meanwhile, Hendry has also come to the conclusion these kids are alright, too, which is concisely summed up with a conversation he has with Wesley while defending them, asking how would he have behaved at their age if the odds were 50-50 on whether or not you’d be a reduced to a radioactive shadow on a wall at any moment? So, the only reason they act up and push boundaries is they simply have nothing to lose. The reporter seems to admire this attitude among those who use this drive constructively and goes all in to try and help them find the money to save the old clubhouse. But the best idea they can come up with is to throw a Halloween dance featuring several local acts and charge admission to raise the scratch to save the charter. A great idea and all but the problem comes full circle because with the clubhouse already in the process of being repossessed, they have no place to hold this shindig.

Salvation comes with the timely arrival of Anastasia Abernathy (Neumann) and her foul-mouthed parrot; both holdovers from Hot Rod Gang, which, I guess, makes The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow not only a shabby half-assed remake but a shabby half-assed sequel, too. (Come to think on it, I believe Lois was also a holdover character from that first movie, too. I’d look it up but, meh.) For once Anastasia gets wind of her niece and her pals’ predicament, the eccentric old kook offers up one of her many properties: namely, the old Abernathy place out in Flint Canyon near Hollow Road -- known colloquially to the hepcats as Dragstrip Hollow. And while she offers these accommodations up for freesies, turns out there’s a catch. You see, the old Abernathy place is rumored to be -- waaaaaaaaait for it -- haunted by the malignant ghost of old man Abernathy himself.

Okay, look, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was already running on fumes long before the kooky and spooky third act kicks in as the whole gang heads to the alleged haunted house to flush out the ghost and prep for the party, which is a good thing, too, because, as the movie then proceeds to crash into a ton of tired sight gags, secret passages, and some kind of merry prankster of a monster lurking about, there’s nothing left in the tank to burn the wreckage. Meantime, Anita and her gang have been wandering in and out of the picture the whole time, trying to cause trouble, but just like with everything else nothing ever comes of this. And as I said earlier, when Anita at last goads Lois into another race this happens off-screen; she leaves, she comes back; that’s it. So all we get is her apology and a promise to never do it again. I mean, Did she even win?!

Anyhoo, after several more interminable songs during this masquerade jamboree, all of this nonsense finally comes to a merciful end when Dave and Amelia unveil the car they’ve been feverishly working on for the last few months. And this Frankenstein’s monster of a funny car is just that; an old ramshackle heap of mismatched spare parts, spot welds, leaking oil, and belching smoke, that has somehow become self aware and can speak to (and out-think) its master. (Yes. This, I believe, was supposed to be the “Haunted Hot-Rod” of the title. And yes. You’re right. This hot-rod isn’t haunted. Exactly. Moving on...) And so, this sentient mechanical monster is able to sniff out the ghost’s spider-hole hidden behind the fireplace because, obviously, it’s the smartest thing in the room.

And while this secret chamber is unoccupied, it does prove whoever has been scaring them isn’t a real ghost. And when Hendry calls for everyone to remove their masks, they are able to quickly weed out the true culprit and catch him. Here, the unmasking reveals a nebbish man who claims to be a former monster-maker for the movies (Blaisdell), who had been recently cast aside and set up shop at the old house for … reasons. Whatever. And with that, we devolve into one last dance number just as the real ghost of old man Abernathy stalks the dance floor as the end credits roll.

For those unaware, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow gets oddly meta in that last scene. Poor Paul Blaisdell had been the unheralded monster maker for American International since its inception. But by 1959, weary of Nicholson and Arkoff’s good cop / bad cop routine, he was ready to walk away from the business altogether after he refused to build the monsters for The Giant Leeches (1959) and Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) for the pittance offered in budget and compensation. (Both movies missed him dearly, too, judging by the monsters we eventually got.) But Nicholson managed to coax him back one last time with the promise of an actual speaking role.

Of course, it was Arkoff who told him there was no money to build a new monster suit; and so, Blaisdell once more was called on to recycle what he could from creatures past, which was hard because most of his creations were not-so-accidentally burnt-up during the climax of the presciently autobiographical AIP film, How to Make a Monster (1958), where an old make-up man plots to murder the studio execs who fired him after he proved no longer useful. And so, Blaisdell drug out the old She Creature costume again, which had already been recycled once before in Voodoo Woman (1958), gave it a mastectomy, and essentially got to play himself as the fake ghost; and to me, his final speech of abandonment by his bosses rang a little too true and brings some melancholy gravitas to a movie that so thoroughly did not deserve it.

And I guess one should point out on top of everything else, American International Pictures was also trying to branch out into other mediums in 1959, resulting in the formation of American International Records. In concept, the studio would use their films as vehicles to promote their roster of singers and sell some records, explaining away the overabundance of songs in The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, which netted the release of three 45-singles on the new label. One featuring Linda Leigh and The Treasure Tones (“My Guy”), The Renegades, who may or may not be a group called The Phantom Surfers (“Geronimo”, “Charge”), and Sheboygan’s own Jimmy Maddin (“How’s About a Little Kiss”). The music itself isn’t all that terrible -- in fact, a couple of the tunes are kinda catchy, but it all backfires once it hits the screen due to the cheapness of the production, which is plagued by terrible lip-syncing and, worse yet, a lack of playback during the dance numbers, meaning the cast had to flail around to non-existent music until it was dubbed in later. And that’s why everyone dancing looks like a complete idiot with all the rhythm of a barrel of scotch’d pickles. In less than a year AIP would abandon this concept and would focus solely on soundtrack albums instead.

Now, a lot of folks point to The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow as the missing link between AIP’s old noir-fueled and morality-driven teen-angst pictures like Cool and the Crazy (1959) and the gonzo fun in the sun of Beach Party (1963). But not me. Nope. I think you gotta go back to Dragstrip Riot (1958) to find the true Rosetta Stone, where director David Bradley and scriptwriter George Hodgins gave us hot-rodding beachniks, a roving gang of motorcycle hooligans, a jealousy-fueled love-triangle, goofy adults on the periphery played by famous and well-seasoned players, a goofy hang-out run by an even goofier owner, rumbles, riots, and, oh yeah, inexplicable musical interludes to find the true source of the Beach Party franchise. Jody Fair and ‘poor man’s James Dean’ Martin Braddock make a serviceable enough proto-Frankie and Annette but the movie is absolutely stolen by the statuesque presence of Sanita Pelkey; a former Miss Universe contestant, burlesque dancer, moon maiden in Missile to the Moon (1958), and a long standing cine-crush of Yours Truly.

Sadly, Lou Rusoff died of brain cancer before his biggest hit, Beach Party, got released, where his corny jokes and hackneyed premises finally congealed into a gloriously goofy romp that spawned nearly a dozen sequels, countless knock-offs, and one of the longest cinema summers on record. Several plot elements of The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow would also be recycled, sort of, in 1966 with The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, where a group of displaced beachniks descend on a haunted mansion for the reading of a will. But I’m in no way saying The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was just ahead of its time. Nope. I’m just saying this metric ton of "derp" wasn’t completely useless. Almost. But not quite.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's seven reviews down with 19 to go! Up Next: Seven little sorority sisters, sitting in a row. They all pulled a prank, and now they all must go.

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959) Alta Vista Productions :: American International Pictures / EP: James Nicholson, Samuel Arkoff / P: Lou Rusoff / AP: Bartlett A. Carre / D: William J. Hole Jr. / W: Lou Rusoff / C: Gilbert Warrenton / E: Frank P. Keller, Edward Sampson / M: Ronald Stein / S: Jody Fair, Russ Bender, Henry McCann, Martin Braddock, Elaine DuPont, Sanita Pelkey, Paul Blaisdell

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