Drive-In Cult Classics

Crown International Pictures was founded in 1959 by Newton P. “Red” Jacobs, a former executive of RKO, initially as a distribution company [they were behind the US release of Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter movies], but in the 60’s they also moved into film production. While they largely stopped in the early 90’s – the IMDB gives them one credit after 1993 – at their peak, the resulting release-slate contained as many as a dozen pictures per year, mostly in the exploitation genres. Kung-fu, horror, sci-fi and teen movies were their bread and butter, with drive-ins constituting the staple market for the company.

Brentwood, one of the most prolific of the DVD box-set companies, has picked up the rights to much of the CIP catalog, and has released four (at time of writing), eight-movie collection, which can be found for as little as $4.99. When you’re paying so little for a movie, the Scotsman that I am inevitably has his interest picqued, and I used a couple of Barnes and Noble gift cards to acquire three of the collections, totalling 24 movies for about 25 bucks. Can’t beat that for value, can you? Of course, there then comes the trivial issue: are any of the films in it any good? The Scotsman in me is now putting his fingers in his ears and humming very loudly, but honesty compels me to offer the assessments of each title given below.

I do have to say, technically, this is definitely a cut above much of the usual Brentwood output: I’ve often seen issues before with their content suffering terribly, between compression, pan-and-scan and low-quality transfers. These are, however, very nice: slightly widescreen, with decent picture quality and audio. However, there are no special features on the discs at all: it’s just the movies, two on each side of the DVD, with a functional menu (oddly, depicting a “normal” cinema rather than a drive-in!) to select which feature you want to watch.

In terms of content, this set has a couple of standouts, particular in Malibu High, and Trip With the Teacher was also good fun: those two decent examples of trash cinema were enough to justify its purchase, as far as I was concerned. The rest of the films were a mixed bag: if they failed to reach quite the same delirious highs, they did succeed in keeping me awake. Which is more than I can say for the remake of The Eye which I just snoozed my way through. Volume 2 is already on the shelf, so expect that to appear on the site in due course.

Best Friends (1975)

Rating: D+

Dir: Noel Nosseck
Star: Richard Hatch, Doug Chapin, Susanne Benton, Ann Noland

When Pat (Chapin) returns from his stint in the armed forces, he’s delighted to find his long-time best friend, Jesse (Hatch), waiting for him, along with their respective fiancees, Jo Ella (Noland) and Kathy (Benton). Rather than flying home, the four decide to rent a motor-home and drive around the country for a while, a last hurrah before the planned double-wedding. However, it isn’t long before the cracks start to show – most notably in Pat’s psyche. It’s clear he was not undamaged by his spell in the military: he wants Jesse to dump Kathy, and instead join him in crusing the country on motorcycles, living the wild, batchelor life. Jesse is not exactly enthralled by the idea, having decided its time to grow up and start acting responsible, and so rejects the suggestion. Pat decides that Kathy is responsible, coming between him and his buddy, and embarks on a plan to destroy their relationship – being willing, in the process, to sacrifice his own. The escalating tensions culminate one evening on a California beach, a night which will see things come to a violent head.

One of the joys of this series is going in without knowing anything about the movies. I don’t even bother reading the synopsis: just kick the film in and see what unspools, a refreshing change from usually having a pretty good idea of what to expect. However, it doesn’t work here, since what you have is not much more than a four-cornered love-triangle on wheels. I kept expecting the film to go in a different direction, most notably during a stop over at a bar on an Indian reservation which ends with a local being beaten with a two-by-four. I was hoping the film might become some kind of siege movie, with the wagon being circled to defend the white women from the natives. No such luck, despite the lurid poster on the right. The script goes straight back onto its soap-opera path, and it’s only in the final 15-20 minutes that things bubble to an acceptable level of dramatic conflict. It’s not hard to come up with any number of more interesting directions for this to have gone, than the one actually taken.

Cindy and Donna (1970)

Rating: C-

Dir: Bernard Hirschenson
Star: Debbie Osborne, Nancy Ison, Suzy Allen, Cheryl Powell

As we’ll see later, a number of the titles here skew a bit older than I’d have expected. That is not the case here, as it centers on Cindy (Osborne), a 15-year old girl and her half-sister Donna (Ison), who’s 17 – though given the amount of time they spend undressed, I really hope the actresses were older than their characters. With their mother (Allen) and father, it’s a majorly-dysfunctional family: Mom is a lush and Dad has a thing for young strippers. Presumably as a result, Donna is a wild-child, with a fondness for dope and sex [in one particularly-creepy scene, with her stepfather]. Somehow, Cindy has managed to avoid quite the same problems, and is relatively untainted, though is “curious” about sex, shall we say. This leads to a drug-fuelled make-out session with her friend Karen (Powell), and eventually, a dalliance with Donna’s boyfriend, Greg.

If you remember nothing else about this film – and I’ll confess, I had to look up a synopsis, only two days after watching it – you will remember the ending. It was the last film in the box-set I watched, and I’d got used to the sudden brick walls which passed for endings, but this one must be one of the great deus ex machina finishes of all time. The rest of it: a lot of (pseudo?) teenage nudity, but neither the characters, nor the way they interact, made any impression on me at all, and it has a curious moral hypocrisy, tut-tutting at juvenile sexuality, while spending an awful lot of time depicting it [the film was seized as obscene in Kentucky during its original 1970 release, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The conviction was quashed – while counsel for the defense admitted the film’s obscenity, the seizure had been done without a warrant]. If any of the nudity had gone anywhere, it would probably have stopped this from being a rather boring example of sexploitation.

Malibu High (1979)

Rating: B-

Dir: Irvin Berwick
Star: Jill Lansing, Alex Mann, Stuart Taylor, Garth Howard

This started off looking like another unremarkable double-feature filler. Kim (Lansing) is fed up with life: she’s still in high-school at age 18, is about to flunk it, has no money, just lost her boyfriend (Taylor), her father hung himself and her mom’s a total bitch. Finally, she opts to use her natural resources (if you know what I mean, and I think you do) to resolve these issues – though when her mother suggested Kim get a job, I’m not sure she meant as a whore working in the back of a VW van for the ultra-sleazy Tony (Mann). Her ‘popularity’ there lets her move up to work for the slightly-less sleazy Lance (Howard). Which is where the film takes an abrupt right turn, as she discovers a taste for killing – not least on her former pimp – and starts work as, to use one of the movie’s alternate titles, a high-school hit girl.

In other words: exactly the sort of lurid exploitation we love. Kim is just such a spiky, unlikeable heroine, she could never come out of Hollywood [the words “wildly inaccurate” leap to mind when looking at the poster, left]. While her tan-lines need work, one can only admire her single-minded and logical approach to resolving her problems – a true self-starter, able to work without supervision. Perhaps the high point is when Kim triggers cardiac arrest in her principal by showing him her breasts, after having flushed his heart medication down the toilet. If that description has you keen to see the film, you won’t be disappointed. Of course, if you think that’s tacky and silly, you’re spot-on there too, and it doesn’t help that some of the stock music used here would later be re-cycled by The People’s Court and SCTV. Inevitably, of course, Crime Does Not Pay, and it isn’t the kind of film I could possibly recommend to a random stranger, but there’s a loopy individuality at work here, that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a movie intent in going its own direction, for good or bad, and doesn’t care what you think. A nostalgic reminder for what drive-in movies should be about, it’s something of a surprise that Lansing never apparently appeared in anything else, after this excellent piece of trash cinema.

Pick-Up (1975)

Rating: C-

Dir: Bernard Hirschenson
Star: Jill Senter, Gini Eastwood, Alan Long, Tom Quinn

Two female hitch-hikers get a lift with young guy Chuck (Long), whose job is to drive a bus across Florida. As a result of a hurricane, they end up stuck way out in the middle of the Everglades, where… Well, let’s just say, things get a little weird. We get flashbacks depicting the contrasting first sexual experiences of both Carol (Senter) and Maureen (Eastwood). The former was an affectionate encounter with a boy her own age, while Maureen suffered molestation at the hands of a priest – and given this was made in 1975, a decade or so before such things became “fashionable”. The result has left her emotionally scarred and introverted, and apparently also pushed her away from conventional religion to become a worshipper of Apollo. At first, it’s Carol who gets Chuck’s attentions, but his attentions eventually shift to Maureen. And if you thought things were strange so far [and unless you do way too many drugs, the correct answer is “Yes, they were”], the final scene pulls the rug out from under everything that has gone before, and almost redeems the entire film.

Key word: “almost”. It’s less than eighty minutes, but for roughly the first seventy, you’re waiting for stuff to happen. As they get diverted into the middle of the swamps, it feels like it should be heading for 2000 Maniacs territory – or possibly something involving alligators. Yet once they get in there, it’s completely dull, except for occasional moments that border on the surreal, such as the arrival of a political candidate who solicits Maureen’s vote. Not that she bothers to ask him to send a tow-truck or anything. Curiously, none of the three leads, nor the director, were ever involved with a movie subsequent to this. Which is a little odd, as there’s credible amounts of talent there (just not on the scripting side), with the performances less irritating than might be expected given the material. That said, you could have had Gwyneth Paltrow, Christian Bale and Angelina Jolie in this, and it probably wouldn’t have helped.

The Sister in Law (1974)

Rating: D+

Dir: Joseph Ruben
Star: John Savage, W.G. MacMillan, Anne Saxon, Meridith Baer

Despite the title, the plot revolves around writer Robert Strong (MacMillan), and the film mostly focuses on his brother Edward (Savage), who returns to the family home to find Robert’s marriage to Joanna (Saxon) on the rocks, since he’s now shacked up in the city with Deborah (Baer). Joanna – who would be the titular relative, I guess – sets her sights on Edward, to complete her set of Strong brothers, but he’s really more interested in Deborah. and Robert seems to have surprisingly-few objections to either entanglement. That’s because he has issues of his own to deal with; the income from his writing career having evaporated, his gambling habits have left him deep in debt to organized crime, and they have now turned him into their errand-boy, delivering packages for them. When Robert ends up recruiting Edward, and finds out the exact nature of what he’s transporting, it sets off a chain of events which will lead to a tragic conclusion at the side of the road.

I don’t know why I’m being so circumspect, since the poster (right) certainly doesn’t bother, though we saw the ending coming quite some way ahead. This was Ruben’s debut, a long time before he’d hit mainstream Hollywood with films like Sleeping With the Enemy, and takes a long while to get beyond a four-sided soap-opera triangle, albeit one with a lot more nudity. It seems that about half the actresses’ scenes involve disrobing or minimal clothing, and there’s also a bizarrely-unexplained catfight in a swimming pool, which the brothers just watch from inside the house. When the film finally stops with the family wranglings and get going, it does improve somewhat. Edward’s attitude towards his unwanted business partners gets him deeper into trouble with them, and he’s then forced to make some difficult decisions if he wants to escape. It’s too little, too late to stop this from being a disappointment. Also of note is that Savage wrote and performed the soundtrack for the movie. Let’s just say, it’s easy to see why he mostly stuck with the acting thereafter.

The Stepmother (1972)

Rating: C

Dir: Hikmet Avedis
Star: Alejandro Rey, John Anderson, Catherine Justice, Marlene Schmidt

This one was actually nominated for an Oscar: I should rapidly add, it was in the Best Original Song category, going to Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster for the song Strange Are the Ways of Love. That, and the presence of cult icon Claudia Jennings in a supporting role (and doing full-frontal nudity), are probably the most interesting things about this pot-boiler – I expected to see “A Quinn Martin Production” roll across the screen. Frank Delgado (Rey) comes home unexpectedly to find a friend leaving his wife Margo (Savage) under dubious circumstances and, in a fit of jealousy, he kills the man. Inspector Damezi (Anderson) investigates the case, but things are complicated by the presence of another body, murdered the same way, also found nearby. While it’s entirely separate, this muddies the waters, until Frank’s business partner in the construction industry takes a fall off a roof. That’s when the relationship stuff kicks into high-gear with the widow (Schmidt) not wasting any time going after Frank, while Margo sets her incestuous sights on their stepson, back from college in Mexico.

As you’ll notice, the title and poster are seriously inaccurate, with Frank easily the central character. There’s also a somewhat odd visual style, with the use of freeze-frames to a degree that had me wondering if there was something up with the DVD. Then there’s the ending, which uses that technique in a way that defies description, and the occasional moment where Frank starts hallucinating. However, it’s otherwise little to write home about, largely pedestrian and with few memorable elements. Anderson does quite a nice turn as the dogged investigating cop, and as a fan of CSI, you realize how very different police work was in the early 1970’s. None of the other cast members make an impression, and as noted, the script takes more than an hour to realize the movie is called The Stepmother and not The Architect with Anger Issues. While mis-direction was always a staple of the drive-in, it still feels like a cheat to the viewer.

The Teacher (1974)

Rating: C+

Dir: Hikmet Avedis
Star: Angel Tompkins, Jay North, Anthony James, Marlene Schmidt

Despite the claims of the poster on the right, Diane (Tompkins) hardly corrupts an entire school. In fact, after the first scene in which she appears, she’s never even at school, since it’s summer vacation. With her husband a shiftless motor-bike drifter who’s never around, she sets her site on eighteen-year old neighbour, Sean (North), who initially resists, but eventually succumbs to the charms of this proto-cougar. However, taking exception to this is Ralph (James), a Vietnam vet obsessed with Diane, who spies on her from near and afar – he pops up in the most ridiculous circumstances, for example donning scuba-gear so he can swim out to her boat and peer through a window at her and Sean. It doesn’t help matters that Sean was involved in an incident that resulted in the death of Ralph’s little brother. [As an aside, I dunno how much teachers got paid in the seventies, but Diane can afford not just a boat, but a sports-car and a house with a pool. Nice to see educators getting the credit they deserve]

This isn’t too bad, with Playboy model Tompkins making a worthy temptress; if anything, she’s almost too nice, popping round to visit Sean’s mom, who is surprisingly cool with the concept of her son getting friendly with someone 50%-plus older. Probably cooler than Sean, who holds onto his virginity much longer than I would have at his age, given the same opportunity. It ends in a brutal confrontation at the same abandoned warehouse, where the film started with Ralph watching Diane sunbathe, and is more downbeat than I expected: there’s a price to be paid for immorality, it would appear. The film could have done with greater emphasis on Ralph, or something – for once the Diane-Sean relationship is established, the story then treats water for too long, though Tompkins is hardly a chore to watch. Oh, and the mother of John Cassavetes turns up as a gossiping old biddy. It’s interesting to contrast the attitude here with that seen in Pickup. If a young girl is seduced by an older man, that’s wrong; but if it’s a young boy, seduced by an older woman… Woo-hoo! That’s a movie. Just a thought.

Trip with the Teacher (1975)

Rating: C+

Dir: Earl Barton
Star: Zalman King, Brenda Fogarty, Robert Gribbin, Cathy Worthington

Given the title and the first few minutes, depicting a chaperone (Fogarty) and her four charges on an “educational” trip to the desert, I was expecting a salacious soft-porn romp – perhaps with acid influences. Wrong. It’s more of a nudie-roughie, after the young ladies’ bus breaks down, leaving them at the mercy of a trio of bikers: Jay (Gribbin) is the nice one, Pete is neutral…and then there’s Pete’s brother, Al (King). King – and, yes, it’s the Zalman King who’d become a prolific producer of soft-core porn shows like Red-Shoe Diaries – is clearly fresh of his Psycho 1.0.1 acting class, with guest teacher David Hess. His performance is all staring eyes and wild hair (or is wild eyes and staring hair?), and I’m still undecided whether it’s Oscar-worthy or ludicrously OTT. Either way, he runs over the head of the bus-driver and then decides he needs to dispose of the other witnesses. His brother is somewhat on board, especially when visions of fun with the girls is dangled in front of him, but Jay is resolutely opposed and sides with the women.

While never quite sliding beyond an R-rating, this feels more like a grindhouse flick than a drive-in one: it’s hard to imagine any couples making out during this battle of the sexes, given the harsh treatment on view. It is clearly the product of a different era, with most of the women (up until the final scene) largely passive, waiting for Jay to rescue them. However, it’s rarely dull, except during an opening reel that drags badly, and there is a good motorcycle chase, with the actors apparently doing their own stunts. Given the speeds involved, rough terrain and lack of helmets, there’s a real sense of danger, and the remote locations certainly add to the feeling of the victims being isolated from any outside help. However, this is mostly King’s film, and his twitch-infested performance is the most memorable element this has to offer. Whether that’s a good thing or not, is likely up to the individual viewer – I have to say, I found this rather better than Last House on the Left.