Drive-In Cult Classics, Volume 3

The third collection of Crown International movies has perhaps a broader range, in terms of quality, than the previous two sets. Most of them amble along in a moderate way, somewhere between “that was alright, I suppose” to “borderline suck,” with occasional forays into “so bad it’s good”, e.g. The Creeping Terror. But in The Babysitter, this has one of the most impressive films of the entire set, simply in terms of “What will happen next?” As straightforward storytelling goes, many Hollywood movies could learn from it. On the other hand, there’s also one of the most painful pseudo-cinematic experiences I’ve endured in the past year: not even in an entertaining way, more in a “if I gnaw my own limb off, maybe I can escape” way.

The presentations remain solid, with the transfers making most of the films look surprisingly good for their age. There’s even a commentary by the director for Van Nuys Blvd. and some of the films offer the “authentic drive-in experience,” which largely involves, some previews for other CI movies and adverts for the concession stand. The era spanned here is a decade, from 1968 (Single Room Furnished) to 1979 (Van Nuys Blvd.) – The Babysitter is the only black-and-white feature in the set.

There is a fourth volume, but it’s out of print and only available at a horrendous price – especially, considering you can now buy a box-set of the box-sets, so to speak, with all 32 films for less than the cost of Volume Four. Not that buying another copy of 24 movies I already possess appeals much either, especially since I’m already considering compacting these three sets down to just the handful of titles I actually want to keep. I think I may end up trawling the depths of Cinemageddon for the remaining titles, rather that doing anything which would do little more than clutter up additional shelf-space!

The Babysitter (1969)

Rating: B-

Dir: Don Henderson
Star: George E. Carey, Patricia Wymer, Kathy Williams, Anne Bellamy

Hot-shot assistant to the DA, George Maxwell (Carey) isn’t exactly happy in his marriage. Despite the unexpected arrival of a new baby, his wife Edith (Bellamy) is more interested in bridge and dinner parties than just being with him. Enter the titular home-help, Candy Wilson (Wymer), who is wild, free and, apparently, interested in George. But is everything what it seems? For George is also about to go to court as prosecutor in the case of a biker accused of murder. His girl, Julie (Williams), sets out to blackmail Maxwell – initially, it seems she plans to use his lesbian daughter for this, and befriends her towards that end. But when Julie finds out about the blossoming relationship between the father and the babysitter, her plans change…

A decent slab of exploitation, that manages to be remarkably even-handed. All the characters have at least some justification for their actions, even the killer on trial, and it’s refreshingly free of moralistic punishment. Sin doesn’t necessarily get its just reward here: let’s just say, if I had an affair with a teenager, I suspect Chris’s reaction would be closer to a special, genital-related edition of Will It Blend?, than the restraint shown here by Mrs. Maxwell. Despite such a modern approach in this area, it is still somewhat dated. The concept that having a lesbian daughter would be blackmail material seems weird, given the last US Vice-President had one, while the breasts being in black-and-white – literally, since we’re talking serious tan-lines – made me wonder if someone was about to start playing volleyball.

That aside, this is fairly engrossing, cramming a lot of twists and turns into its 75 minutes. Henderson (who does not appear to be, as some have said, a pseudonym for Tom Billy Jack Laughlin) does a good job of hiding whether Candy is part of the plot or not, and Wymer is entirely credible as the free spirit in question; a shame she only made three films. The romance between her and George isn’t quite as creepy as you’d think, despite their age-difference, though a younger actor than Carey might have been more credible. The time certainly zips along, and as drive-in fodder goes, this slice of Crown International cheese has aged surprisingly well.

Blood Mania (1970)

Rating: C+

Dir: Robert Vincent O’Neill
Star: Peter Carpenter, Maria De Aragon, Vicki Peters, Leslie Simms

I enjoyed this psycho soap-opera more than expected: if nothing else, there’s certainly plenty going on. The unstable Victoria (De Aragon) has set her cap at Dr. Cooper (Carpenter), her father’s physician, but he is being blackmailed for fifty grand due to his previous life as an abortionist, Roe vs. Wade still being about three years off. Vickie decides to off her daddy and his weak heart, so she can “help” Cooper with his problem, but unfortunately, failed to check the will – turns out her sister, Gail (Peters), is the main beneficiary. Cooper switches his affections to Gail, taking her, among other places, to the Renaissance Fayre. What woman could possibly resist? It’s a decision that does not sit well with Victoria, whose sanity was, as noted, already skating on thin ice. Then there’s Gail’s strangely-bohemian female companion, and the creepy nurse (Simms) who tended the victim during what turned out to be his last days. What’s her interest, and why is she still hanging around, after her charge is no longer breathing?

The script – co-written by Carpenter – does a good job of keeping all these angles coming at the viewer. Once you get past a needlessly-psychedelic opening sequence, it’s closest cousin is the Hammer psychodramas of the mid-sixties, though this has rather more breasts; I think most of the female characters shed their tops at one point or another. Hey, it’s drive-in. But if Carpenter’s hand in the script is laudable, his performance most definitely is not: wooden, unconvincing and a good deal less interesting than even the costumes chosen by Ms. De Aragorn, who is as much nympho as psycho, and so predatory, she even chases away the pool guy. My favourite was likely her white dress, which for a time had me wondering how the hell she got into it. Was it painted on? The tagline on the poster (right) can be found in the dictionary beside “setting unrealistic expectations,” for there’s nothing here remotely likely to rip anything from anywhere. Still, I won’t deny, the boobs help, and as a brisk timepasser, it’s okay.

Malibu Beach (1978)

Rating: C

Dir: Robert J. Rosenthal
Star: James Daughton, Kim Lankford, Michael Luther, Steve Oliver

An important sub-genre of Crown International movies was the teenage flick. This abandoned anything resembling the traditional three-act structure, in favour of a loosely-linked series of escapades, tied together through their location and a range of central characters. Here, it’s one summer when Bobby (Daughton), new lifeguard Dina (Lankford) and their friends hang out on the titular strip of sand, fall in love, get into scrapes [though, as in The Pom Pom Girls, the definition of ‘youthful pranks’ was clearly a lot looser in those days!] Also getting screen time are a rookie cop who develops a fondness for dope, the local bully (Oliver, reprising a character he played in another CIP movie, The Van) and an apparently stray dog with a fondness for grabbing swimwear and running off with them. Curiously, the canine only ever steals those belonging to attractive young women. What are the odds of that? About the same as Dina wearing a bikini on duty, even though that is strictly against life-guard policy.

It’s kinda hard to write about this kind of movie, since they might as well be taking place on planet Tharg and depicting the life-cycle of the Nujsahk aliens. While I did spend my summer of ’78 on the beach, I doubt that the Moray Firth coast in N. Scotland had anything in common with Malibu, except a proximity to water. That said, this is a harmless time-passer, with the leads less painful to watch than many of their kind, and the supporting characters add to the light-hearted and extremely easy-going ambience. Bear in mind, when this came out, British youth was embracing punk, with its entirely different vibes: here, anarchy is something that extends no further than sneaking into your girlfriend’s house when her parents are out. The film did generate a vague nostalgia for hedonistic summers where anything could happen – though in my case, never did. However, it’s a quintessential drive-in flick, in that there’s very little here that will stick in the mind once the credits roll.

The Pink Angels (1972)

Rating: E

Dir: Larry G. Brown
Star: John Alderman, Tom Basham, Robert Biheller, G.J. Marshall

If not the worst film ever, it’s certainly a candidate. It only dodges the dreaded, rarely-given “F”, by virtue of at least being different, though if ever you needed proof this isn’t necessarily a good thing, look no further. I’m not sure any other movies have centered on a group of gay bikers. I’m still trying to work out if the results are empowering or extraordinarily homophobic: the portrayals here are such shrieking stereotypes, I’m leaning towards the latter. The six are on the road, heading to a Los Angeles drag convention, a road-trip which brings them into conflict with just about the entire rest of society: cops, bikers of the non-flamboyant kind and a general (Marshall) who appears ripped-off from Graham Chapman’s army figure in Monty Python. I kept expecting him to stop the movie for being “too silly.” It’d have been a blessed relief if he had, though the ending actually delivered is almost as much of a non sequitur.

I’m also reminded of Python by the cross-dressing here, which fools characters such as the straight bikers, despite being utterly unconvincing [I also note the script naturally equates homosexuality and transvestism]. The same Python episode which introduced the Colonel, two years prior to Pink Angels, also had Hell’s Grannies, and this feels like the sketch, stretched out to 80 minutes for no reason at all. Add one of the gang who’s a bad John Lennon impersonator, and the British influence is clear. I can only apologize. For there is precious little content here, once you’ve stripped the interminable road sequences, backed by horrendous songs, and – oh, hold my aching sides – an endless parade of scenes where various members of the Pink Angels interact with normal society [I should mention, one of whom is Dan Grizzly Adams Haggerty]. And then, the final shot makes an abrupt right-turn which I can only presume was spliced on by the distributor, in a desperate attempt to forestall the drive-in riot which would otherwise likely have ensued. Sadly, by that point, I’d already slashed my sofa and set fire to our living-room.

The Pom Pom Girls (1976)

Rating: D

Dir: Joseph Ruben
Star: Robert Carradine, Jennifer Ashley, Michael Mullins, Lisa Reeves

Maybe this would be more interesting if a) I’d gone to an American high-school, and b) wasn’t at least twice the age of the target audience. As is, all its talk of pep-rallies, homecoming games and cheerleaders left me cold: the educational establishment I attended in Northern Scotland had none of these. Everything I know about high-school, I learned from Buffy, so I was sadly disappointed by the lack of demons, vampires, butt-kicking and Eliza Dushku here. Instead, it’s very pedestrian stuff, as Johnnie (Carradine), Laurie (Ashley) and their pals make their way through the last year before graduation. The guys are on the football team, the girls are the titular supporters on the sidelines, and…nothing much happens, beyond the usual high-school teen drama. They bicker with each other, feud with a rival high-school team (this was an era where, apparently, stealing a fire-truck was seen as a youthful prank, not a terrorist attack), throw food at each other and so on. The only fragment of anything approaching real drama is at the end, where Jesse (Mullins) engages with another student in a game of “suicide chicken” – it’s like regular chicken, only both drivers speed towards a cliff-edge and the last to stop, wins.

Very much a product of its times and environment, nobody ever suffers any consequence for their actions – which may appeal to the young, but quickly gets irritating to anyone old enough to know better. This kind of barely assembled, “slice of life” drive-in cinema can work, when done right, as with Van Nuys Blvd. It just doesn’t here. Even the brief, supporting presence of sexploitation icon Rainbeaux Smith (once described by Quentin Tarantino as being to cheerleader movies “what Bruce Lee was to kung-fu movies”), and a surprising turn from James Gammon as the football coach, provoke mere blips on the flatline which rapidly became my interest. Perhaps this is one of the cases where “you had to be there,” i.e. both at high-school, and in the mid-70’s, to appreciate the characters and incidents portrayed there. For those like myself who fall outside the era, location, culture and, at the time personally, continent which it portrays, this is nowhere near as entertaining as it thinks.

Single Room Furnished (1966)

Rating: C-

Dir: “Matteo Ottaviano” [a.k.a. Matt Cimber]
Star: Jayne Mansfield, Dorothy Keller, Fabian Dean, Terri Messina

Jayne Mansfield’s final film opens, bizarrely, with an introduction by journalist Walter Winchell, assuring us that Mansfield can act. Well, that’s a relief, since the evidence of this downbeat piece of work is rather less conclusive in the matter. It definitely feels more like the stage-play on which it was based, with a static approach, centering on an apartment building where one of the young residents (Messina) is upset with her mother’s controlling approach. As a cautionary tale, the caretaker tells her of Johnnie a.k.a. Mae a.k.a. Eileen (Mansfield), a girl who married too young, leading into a downward spiral of unwanted pregnancy and prostitution, bringing her into contact with other locals, such as “confirmed bachelor” Charley (Dean) and lonely fishwife Flo (Keller). Their roles were expanded after Mansfield died in a car crash before the picture was completed, and it’s probably for the best. They are certainly more credible than watching Mansfield, by then in her mid-30s, play someone who had allegedly just finished high-school.

That said, there is an undeniable poignancy to the final segment, where Mansfield, whose life and dreams of happiness had evaporated into a tawdry mess, plays a character whose life and dreams of happiness had evaporated into a tawdry mess. Keller and Dean do a decent job in their roles, generating some empathy, even as they deliver dialogue that could come over as clunky. However, Mansfield’s ex-husband Cimber seems to be aiming for A Streetcar Named Desire-style intensity; it falls well short there, with the performances, including Mansfield, simply too uneven to generate the intended level of dramatic passion. And despite being made in the late-sixties, it’s remarkably tame, with even the star wearing more clothes than one would expect from the cover picture. While Mansfield’s name may have sold a few tickets [I’m reminded of Anna Nicole Smith’s last film, Illegal Aliens], the movie is far too “gritty” to appear to the prurient, and its “social drama” angle hasn’t dated very well.

Van Nuys Blvd. (1979)

Rating: C+

Dir: William Sachs
Star: Bill Adler, Cynthia Wood, Tara Strohmeier, David Hayward

Describing this 1979 film as “loosely-plotted” would give the script more credit than it deserves. Country boy Billy (Adler), bored with small-town life, heads for the titular street in Los Angeles. Immediately on arrival, this proves to be a wise decision, as basically the first person he meets – Wanda (Strohmeier), a waitress at a fast-food diner – bangs him in the back of his van. Yes, this was clearly a different, pre-AIDS era, boys and girls. The rest of the films is based around him and the various people he meets, such as rival hot-rod driver Moon (1974 Playmate of the Year Wood) or hip veteran of the Boulevard Chooch (Hayward), with subplots drifting off in semi-random, yet interconnecting ways. For instance, Wanda ends up becoming Chooch’s girl – a bit embarrassing when he introduces her to Billy – there’s a fair amount of screen-time given to the predicament of Officer Zass, the policeman who hassles the kids that cruise the strip, only to get his come-uppance, courtesy of Wanda (who gets around a bit, if you know what I mean, and I think you do). There’s a lot of funky music, shots of life on Van Nuys and disco dancing.

While this has the potential to be extremely tedious, it actually proves surprisingly watchable, assuming you’re in the right mood – not looking for anything plot-driven. It has a certian credibility in terms of the period atmosphere, and the characters on display aren’t a chore to hang out with – for ninety minutes, at least, I’m not so sure about any longer than that. A breezy romp through late seventies street culture, it is happy to hang out with the Billy and his friends as, for example, they spend an afternoon at a theme park. Nothing of actual importance happens there. Indeed, the same applies for much of the movie: I thought Officer Zass would become the antagonist, but he’s handcuffed to his cruiser, near-naked, on the beach for much of the film. In terms of dramatic conflict, there’s basically zero, between a face-off at a gas station near the beginning, resulting in some amusing destruction, and the end, where Billy has to choose between his wheels and his girl. While no classic, certainly better than expected.

Weekend with the Babysitter (1970)

Rating: D+

Dir: Don Henderson
Star: George E. Carey, Susan Romen, James Almanzar, Luanne Roberts

A couple of years after The Babysitter, Henderson revisited a similar topic, with Carey once again playing the middle-aged man, trapped in a loveless marriage, who is shown the way to freedom by his child-minder. Here, he’s film director Jim Carlton, whose wife Mona (Roberts) is a former actress with a nasty drug-habit. She heads off for the weekend with her mother, leaving Jim with Candy (Romen, not a patch on Patricia Wymer). She introduces him to her hippie friends and the joys of marijuana – yes, this is a film director who’d apparently never inhaled, which stretched my credulity a tad – and opens his mind to things like motocross. No, never had that down as a hippie-sport either. Meanwhile, his wife has actually slid out out of Mom’s to get a fix from sleazy heroin dealer Rich Harris (Almanzar), who then kidnaps Mona, making her go cold turkey until she hands over their boat to help with smuggling some more dope up from Mexico.

It’s an interesting line drawn by the script. Marijuana is perfectly fabulous, heroin sucks – and the same goes for their respective users (the concept of “gateway drugs” is, inexplicably, ignored here…). It’s a refreshing change from the normal “Drugs are bad, m’kay” line, though not much less sterotypical. As in the original, Candy’s friends have no problems accepting Jim, despite his obvious squareness; however, things don’t gel, with the two halves of the plot remain entirely separate until the final sequence, which pulls them together in a completely implausible manner. The Jim/Candy relationship fails to come over as anything more than the dubious wish-fulfilment of a middle-aged man, whisking his young paramour off by private plane to a cabin in the mountains. Its failure to convince renders the inevitable sex scene somewhat creepy, and the Requiem for a Dream-esque moral collapse of Mona into lesbian canoodlings doesn’t make up for this. A sharp contrast to its predecessor, I found it tough to stay awake.