Drive-In Saturday Night #5: MALIBU BEACH (Crown-International 1978) & VAN NUYS BOULEVARD (Crown-International 1979)

The kids are back in school, the days are getting shorter, and the nights are getting cooler. Yes, my friends, summer’s almost over, but before it ends, let’s take one more trip to the drive-in and enjoy a pair of Crown-International Exploitation classics. Crown was responsible for a slew of “teen sex” drive-in flicks  in the 70’s and early 80’s. You know the type: the “teens” are all over 21, and the “sex” consists mainly of topless babes and some heavy necking!

Our first feature, 1978’s MALIBU BEACH, is the quintessential Crown-International “teen sex” romp. School’s out, and all the hardbodied California kids head to said beach for some frolicking in the sand and surf. Pretty Dina gets a summer job as a lifeguard, and meets handsome football hunk Bobby. A leather jacket wearing musclehead named Dugan tries to get between them, but we all know he’s got no shot! And that’s about it for plot in this harmless but likable little effort – nothing really happens, but it’s a fun way to kill an hour and a half, and good for a few chuckles along the way.

We get all your basic stereotypes (like nerdy rich kid Claude and hot’n’horny Gloriana), a pair of lunkheaded cops, lots of bouncing boobs, pot smoking, beer drinking, hell raising, and a dog that likes to steals bikini tops, all set to a generic rock score. We even get a silly little JAWS parody thrown in at the end for good measure! True, it doesn’t sound like much (and really, it isn’t), but MALIBU BEACH has a certain charm about it, and I liked it a lot. It’s shot well, the cast is appealing, and I found myself laughing out loud at some of the shenanigans going on. What more do you want from a drive-in flick, anyway?

The cast is made up of mostly unknowns, with a few exceptions. Pretty Kim Lankford, best known as Ginger on the prime time soap KNOTS LANDING, plays pretty Dina. James Daughton (Bobby) challenged Fonzie to “jump the shark” in that infamous episode of HAPPY DAYS that coined the infamous phrase, but will forever be remembered as Greg Marmalade, arch enemy of the Deltas in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE! And Stephen Oliver, who plays the creep Dugan, played creep Lee Webber on the hit series PEYTON PLACE, and was typecast as a creepy biker in films like ANGELS FROM HELL, the cult classic WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS , and Russ Meyer’s MOTORPSYCHO.

Now let’s all head to the snack bar before our second feature:

Got all your snacks and soft drinks? Good, let’s look at our next film, 1979’s VAN NUYS BLVD…

…this one set in the 70’s milieu of aimlessly cruising up and down the main drag. Makes me nostalgic for cruising the Ave in my Chevy Nova back in the day; it’s just not the same in a Hyundai! But I digress. Like MALIBU BEACH, the plot of VAN NUYS BLVD is skimpier than the carhop’s uniforms. Country boy Bobby decides to jump in his customized van and head to where the action is, namely cruising up and down Van Nuys Blvd. He meets gorgeous van driver Moon, and they engage in a running battle of the sexes. They’re both competitive, trying to outdo each other, so you know by the end they’ll be madly in love, because that’s how these things work!

In between, we get some comic set pieces, including a pig loose on the beach, and the plight of skeezy Officer Zass, the scourge of the cruisers. We also get some disco dancing, with the Kansas City Glitter Girls doing a dance number called “Boogie Down the Boulevard”, a silly but entertaining bit of filler. There’s hot rods and muscle cars, an overaged cruiser with an impressive moustache named Chooch, lots of T-N-A, and smutty jokes that managed to make me laugh despite myself. It’s all goofy, trivial nonsense, but well done far as these exploitation flicks go.

Director William Sachs was also responsible for one of Crown-International’s best known films, 1980’s GALAXINA, starring the doomed Playmate Dorothy Stratton (whose story was filmed as Bob Fosse’s STAR 80). Another ex-Playmate, Cynthia Wood, plays Moon, while costar Bill Adler (Bobby) was a Crown International regular (THE POM POM GIRLS, THE VAN  ) who’s also in Jack Hill’s SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. You probably won’t recognize anyone else in the cast unless you’re an Exploitation fan: Tara Strohmeier (carhop Wanda, who winds up with Chooch) appeared in such fare as THE STUDENT TEACHERS, CANDY STRIPE NURSES, COVER GIRL MODELS, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, and HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (and plays horny Gloriana in MALIBU BEACH).

The Drive-In’s now closed for the season, as we’re getting ready to hunker down for the winter months. Hopefully, we will reopen next spring to take a look at more Exploitation delights. Don’t forget to remove the speakers from your windows before driving off, and ya’ll come back now, ya hear?

All Star Exploitation: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (Australian 2010)

Tonight we celebrate baseball with MLB’s 90th annual All-Star Game, and… what’s that you say, Dear Readers? You don’t LIKE baseball?!? (*sighs, shakes head, mutters “must be some kinda Commies”*) Luckily for you, I’ve got an alternative for your viewing pleasure this evening. It’s an All-Star salute to the halcyon days of low-budget Exploitation filmmaking in the Philippines that lasted roughly from 1959 (Gerry DeLeon’s TERROR IS A MAN, with Francis Lederer and Greta Thyssen) to the early 80’s and the advent both of VHS, which effectively ended the Drive-In/Grindhouse Era, and political upheaval caused in part by Fernando Marcos’s imposition of martial law on the island nation.

1971’s “Beast of the Yellow Night”

This Australian-made documentary by writer/director Mark Hartley covers the wild, wild world of making Exploitation movies in the jungle on a shoestring budget through judicious use of clips, trailers, and interviews with the people who made these crazy things – and lived to tell about it! And you want non-baseball All-Stars? Let’s start with the King of the ‘B’s’ himself, Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures produced, financed (minimally, I might add!), and released many of them stateside, beginning with 1971’s BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT and ending with 1979’s JAWS -ripoff UP FROM THE DEEP. Rapid Roger makes no bones about the fact these little epics were green lit strictly to make money – and boy, did they ever!

Pam Grier and Margaret Markov in “Black Mama White Mama” (1973)

Among the many interviewees are directors Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Jonathan Kaplan , and John Landis , Corman graduates all. Landis is particularly candid and hilarious in his assessment of pretentious, eggheaded critics who saw more into these schlockfests than was intended. Like Corman, he fully admits the only reason they were made was a quick buck! Also on hand are rare interviews with legendary Filipino directors Eddie Romero (MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA , THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE) and Cirio Santiago (TNT JACKSON, THE MUTHERS , VAMPIRE HOOKERS).

Pam again, with Sid Haig in “The Big Doll House” (1971)

And talk about All-Stars? How’s this for a power-hitting lineup: Colleen Camp (EBONY, IVORY, & JADE), Marlene Clark (NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN), Pam Grier (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), Gloria Hendry (SAVAGE SISTERS), Dick Miller (FLY ME), Chris Mitchum (THE ONE-ARMED EXECUTIONER), Patrick Wayne (BEYOND ATLANTIS), and Celeste Yarnell (BEAST OF BLOOD) all appear in interview segments. Not only that, but the great Sid Haig , who costarred in just about ALL of these films (many times opposite Grier), shares his own reminiscences about the glory days of Filipino filmmaking.

James Bond Jr?: Weng Weng in “For Y’ur Height Only” (1981)

There’s loads of clips and trailers from classic trash like THE BIG BIRD CAGE, COVER GIRL MODELS (“They’re always overexposed but they’re never underdeveloped!”), DYNAMITE JOHNSON, FIRECRACKER, THE HOT BOX (“Their guns are hot and their bodies are hard!”), THEY CALL HER CLEOPATRA WONG, WOMEN IN CAGES, and FOR Y’UR HEIGHT ONLY, starring the immortal 2’9″ Filipino superstar Weng Weng! It’s all here in MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED: mad monsters, women in chains, action, explosions, and most importantly, The 3 B’s – Beasts, Blood, and Breasts! They just don’t make ’em like these flicks anymore, and probably never will again. This is one hell of a fun documentary that Grindhouse/Exploitation/Drive-In fans won’t want to miss! Now excuse me while I go watch some baseball.

from Eddie Romero’s “The Twilight People” (1972)

Drive-In Saturday Night 4: WHITE LINE FEVER (Columbia 1975) & HIGH-BALLIN’ (AIP 1978)

Breaker One-Nine, Breaker One-Nine, it’s time to put the hammer down with a pair of Trucksploitation flicks from the sensational 70’s! The CB/Trucker Craze came to be because of two things: the gas crisis of 1973 and the implementation of the new 55 MPH highway speed limit imposed by Big Brother your friendly Federal government. Long-haul truckers used Citizen’s Band radios to give each other updates on nearby fueling stations and speed traps set up by “Smokeys” (aka cops), and the rest of America followed suit.

Country singer C.W. McCall had a massive #1 hit based on CB/trucker lingo with “Convoy”, and the trucker fad was in full swing. There had been trucker movies made before – THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, HELL DRIVERS, and THE WAGES OF FEAR come to mind – but Jonathan Kaplan’s 1975 WHITE LINE FEVER was the first to piggy-back on the new gearjammer craze. Kaplan was a Roger Corman acolyte who started with films like NIGHT CALL NURSES (and later directed Jodie Foster to an Oscar in THE ACCUSED, based on a real-life incident that happened RIGHT HERE in New Bedford, MA). WHITE LINE FEVER was his first movie for a major studio, and though the budget was still small, it resonated enough with audiences to make it a surprise box office hit.

The late, great Jan-Michael Vincent stars as a returning Vietnam vet who marries childhood sweetheart Kay Lenz and buys himself a big rig (christening it “The Blue Mule”), hoping to live The American Dream. That dream is shattered when Vincent refuses to play ball and haul contraband for his sleazy bosses (including Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, and Don Porter), and attempts to unionize his fellow truckers.

Jan-Michael gets blackballed and lands in a whole heap o’trouble before taking matters into his own hands at shotgun point, and there’s lots of 18-wheel action, car crashes, explosions, and other good stuff. Meanwhile, a subplot unfolds when Kay discovers she’s pregnant and considers an abortion, a hot button topic at the time (as I always say, the more things change… ). The Bad Guys set Our Hero up for the murder of Slim, and the trial features a crooked prosecutor (R.G. Armstrong) and crooked witness (John David Garfield, son of the former Warner Brothers star).

Our Hero is acquitted, so The Bad Guys ramp up the nastiness, trashing The Blue Mule, killing his good buddy Pops (Sam Laws), and beating Jan-Michael and Kay severely, then burning their house down! Vindictive bastards! Kay loses the baby (conveniently skirting that pesky abortion issue) and is told she can never have children, so Jan-Michael’s had just about enough, leading to a slam-bang smash-up finale with Our Hero vs Porter’s Evil Empire, going down in an Exploitation Blaze of Glory!

Reportedly, WHITE LINE FEVER is where Jan-Michael Vincent was first introduced to cocaine, a drug that swiftly sent him on a personal downward spiral (I can relate!). He did some excellent work in movies and TV during the 70’s and 80’s, but sadly drugs and alcohol held him back from realizing his full potential. Beautiful Kay Lenz was a personal favorite of mine for films like BREEZY and THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY (and the Rod Stewart video “Infatuation” , directed by Kaplan) who remains active today, mostly in episodic TV. And besides those previously mentioned, the ubiquitous Dick Miller has a small role as one of Jan-Michael’s fellow haulers; Kaplan and Miller pay tribute to their mentor by naming Dick’s character ‘Birdie’ Corman, who drives a rig called ‘The Brat’!

And now let’s hit the snack bar before our next feature…

Everybody loaded up on popcorn? Good, because next up is pure popcorn movie bliss, 1978’s HIGH-BALLIN’…

This underrated little Trucksploitation flick came out at the height of the CB/Trucker craze, and stars SMOKEY & THE BANDIT’s Jerry Reed as an independent trucker battling another Evil Empire… this time a trucking magnate (Chris Wiggins) who wants to force the indies out of business and work for him. Enter Jerry’s good ol’ buddy Peter Fonda , who first appears riding up to the truck stop on a motorcycle because… well, because he’s Peter Fonda!

There’s plenty of exciting action to be found in this Canadian-made entry, and I especially enjoyed the scene where Jerry and Peter are being chased by bad guys down the highway while hauling a load of stock cars – you can’t get much more redneck than that, good buddy! HIGH-BALLIN’ also costars the sexy-cute and extremely underrated Canadian actress Helen Shaver as Pickup, a tough truck drivin’ chick (who shares the obligatory 70’s sex scene with Fonda). David Ferry (Detective Dolly of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS) is on hand as psycho henchman Harvey, who winds up in a cowboy-style showdown with Fonda at the film’s conclusion. Keep an eye out for Canadian actors Harvey Atkin (TV’s CAGNEY & LACEY) and Michael Ironside (SCANNERS, V: THE FINAL BATTLE, TOP GUN) in minor roles.

HIGH-BALLIN’ may be low-budget, mindless entertainment, but it’s good for what it is, with lots of action, trucker lingo (“Keep the shiny side up, keep the greasy side down”), and likable performances from Fonda, Reed, Shaver, and young Chris Langevin (who now works as a prop man) as Reed’s son Tanker, a rare instance where the little kid isn’t annoying in one of these action flicks. So keep the bears away from your back doors as you leave the drive-in while we listen to C.W. McCall’s smash “Convoy”, from the glory days when Kenworths and Peterbilts ruled the roads – and the screens!:

  That’s a Big 10-7 from me, Good Buddies!

Is LADY STREET FIGHTER The Worst Movie Ever Made? (American General 1981)

In all my years of watching movies, I’ve seen more than my share of stinkers. But nothing quite prepared me for the total ineptitude that is LADY STREET FIGHTER, starring the immortal Renee Harmon. This wretchedly made film features an incoherent script, horrific cinematography, murky sound, no direction, really bad acting, and an ersatz synth theme ripped off from Morricone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY . Let’s put it this way… when Jody McCrea (Bonehead of the Beach Party series) takes your film’s best acting honors, you KNOW you’re in for trouble!!

This senseless excuse for a movie finds Renee out to avenge the death of her sister at the hands of a gang called Assassins Incorporated, or something like that. I’m really not too sure, as the convoluted plot isn’t well defined. The movie starts off promising for Grindhouse fans with a gruesome torture scene (including a beating with a Kendo stick ala WWE!), but descends into something truly bad. I don’t mean so-bad-it’s-good… I mean downright BAD. I’d say it looks like something out of a high school film class, but that would be an insult to high school film classes across the country. The only redeeming quality I could find in LADY STREET FIGHTER was that it finally ended.

Miss Harmon herself was of German origin, and immigrated to Texas with her Army colonel husband after WWII. Renee was always interested in acting, and after the couple moved to California she began producing, writing, and starring in her own low-budget films. She reminded me of the love child between Bela Lugosi and Marlene Dietrich (if one can imagine!) – trouble is, she couldn’t act her way out of the proverbial paper bag. And her martial arts “skills” are as bad as her acting. Her thick German accent (“Let’s zay at the goo-goo club”, she drones, meaning go-go club) is almost indecipherable, though I gotta admit the 50ish  Renee looks pretty good nekkid, and she can do some really amazing things with a stalk of celery!

At the end of this totally incompetent movie, there was a scrawl that read…

Watch for THE RETURN OF LADY STREET FIGHTER…

coming this Fall!

What?? You mean there was a sequel?? Must’ve been rated “For Masochists Only”!!

Drive-In Saturday Night 3: MACON COUNTY LINE (AIP 1974)/RETURN TO MACON COUNTY (AIP 1975)


Yee-haw! Southern Fried Exploitation was box office gold during the 1970’s, a  genre that usually had one or more of the following elements: race cars, moonshine, redneck sheriffs, scantily clad country girls, shotguns, and/or Burt Reynolds .  One of the foremost practitioners of this art was Max Baer, namesake son of the heavyweight boxer and erstwhile Jethro Bodine of TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, who scored a surprise hit when he produced, wrote, and costarred in 1974’s MACON COUNTY LINE.

The story’s set in the 50’s, complete with some vintage tunes on the soundtrack (The Chords’ “Sh-Boom”, Laverne Baker’s “Jim Dandy”, Big Joe Turner’s “Corrine, Corrina”). “The story is true”, reads a pre-credits scrawl, “only the names have been changed” (Actually, the story was concocted by Baer and director Richard Compton, but what the hey…). Brothers Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by brothers Alan and Jesse Vint ) are a pair of fun lovin’ cats on a road trip through the Deep South before heading into the service. They pick up hitchhiking hottie Jenny Scott (Cheryl Waters) in Louisiana, and the three of them drift along down the highway.

The lighthearted tone ends on the return trip when the brother’s ’49 Chrysler breaks down in Georgia. The hick garage mechanic (Geoffrey Lewis in a funny part that seems almost improvised) tells them they need a fuel pump, but they don’t have enough cash, so he jury-rigs it for them. Gun-loving Macon County Deputy Reed Morgan (Baer) pulls into the garage and hassles the trio, letting them know in no uncertain terms to get out of town when their car’s repaired or be arrested for vagrancy. Morgan heads to pick up his son (Leif Garrett) at military school while the Dixons and Jenny wait for the slow-poke hick to fix the damn car.

While Morgan’s out of town, a pair of home-invading creeps (James Gammon, Timothy Scott) force their way into his house and rape and murder his wife (Joan Blackman ). The creeps also smoke a cop who pulls them over, but end up caught by the cop’s partner (Sam Gilman) after a car crash. Meanwhile, Morgan returns home with his boy to discover the carnage inside, sees the Dixon’s abandoned car near his house (the pump shit the bed again), and all hell breaks loose, as Morgan hunts down the trio into the dark Georgia night. The final portion of MACON COUNTY LINE plays like a horror film, with Chris, Wayne, and Jenny trapped in a nightmare, and a shocking surprise ending that packs a lethal punch!

The camerawork by DP Daniel Lacambre is startlingly good for a low-budget effort like this, and Compton’s direction helps ratchet up the tension. Baer gives a surprisingly effective performance as the ramrod-straight Morgan, shattering his country bumpkin Jethro image forever. Bobbie Gentry sings the closing credits theme song “Another Place, Another Time”, and Baer would later produce and direct the film adaptation of her biggest hit, “Ode to Billy Joe”. MACON COUNTY LINE was the most profitable film of the year, costing $225,000 and raking in over $30 million worldwide, so you just know a sequel was inevitable.

While Jesse and Alan Vint never rose much above low-budget Exploitation fare, the stars of 1975’s RETURN TO MACON COUNTY – Don Johnson and Nick Nolte – certainly did. Baer wasn’t involved in this, so writer/director Compton takes sole responsibility for this 1958-set sequel (despite several anachronisms, like Hamburger Helper on the general store shelves and a 70’s-era Smokey the Bear public service billboard), and guess what – it’s not bad! Compton seems to be going for an AMERICAN GRAFFITI vibe, only with a harder and darker edge. Like it’s predecessor, RETURN TO MACON COUNTY is peppered with classic 50’s rock on the soundtrack (Fats Domino, Chuck Berry , Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson , The Fleetwoods, The Ventures), otherwise it has little to no relationship to the original besides the title.

Since most of the protagonists in MACON COUNTY LINE wound up dead, we’re introduced to Nolte and Johnson as Bo and Luke – umm, that’s Bo and Harley – and their spiffy, fuel-injected ’57 Chevy, which they plan on driving out to California to enter and win the Grand National. Along the way, they pick up wild child waitress Junelle (Robin Mattson) and cruise on down the highway. When Harley gets in a jam with some local JD’s (that’s Juvenile Delinquents) and loses all their money, the trio go back to town to retrieve it, with crazy Junelle pulling a gun on the JD’s! They cause quite a ruckus, and run afoul of Macon County Police Sgt. Wittaker (the always-hissable Robert Viharo). Bo punches the cop out, and the chase is on, with both the JD’s and a pissed off Wittaker out for revenge…

Johnson and Nolte are both likeable in early roles, but it’s Mattson who stands out as the off-center (and obviously disturbed) Junelle. She went on to fame as a Soap Opera Queen on shows like GENERAL HOSPITAL, SANTA BARBARA, and ALL MY CHILDREN (and as an aside to all you film buffs, the Script Supervisor listed in the credits is Shirley Ulmer, widow of cult director Edgar G. Ulmer ). The oddball ending of the film is completely unexpected, but it did  leave me feeling satisfied.  RETURN TO MACON COUNTY didn’t do nearly as well as the first film, but stands on its own as a good example of Southern Fried Exploitation. I’d recommend both of these films, each for different reasons. What do ya’ll think, Burt?…

Burt agrees- both!

 

 

Existential Exploitation: BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW (AIP 1976)

I discussed filmmaker Vernon Zimmerman in a post on his UNHOLY ROLLERS back in January. Zimmerman wrote the script (but did not direct) for 1976’s BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW, which on the surface is just another sex’n’violence laden redneck exploitation film. Yet after a recent viewing, it seemed to me Zimmerman was not just delving into exploitation, but exploring something more: disaffected youth, gun culture, the cult of personality, and violence in America, themes that still resonate today.

Former child evangelist turned rock star turned actor Marjoe Gortner is Lyle Wheeler, a drifter who enters quick draw contests and idolizes Billy the Kid. Lyle’s a hustler, as we find out as he pulls into a gas station and steals a Mustang from a travelling salesman. Lyle outruns a police car hot on his tail, causing the cop to go off the road, and revs into the next town, where he meets Bobbie Jo.

She’s played by Lynda Carter, a small town carhop with big dreams of country music success. Bobbie Jo has a mother (B Western vet Peggy Stewart) who nags and drinks on the sly, and a sister Pearl (Merrie Lynn Ross) who left home to be a stripper. She doesn’t date the local boys, who quite frankly are just lusting after her big boobs, but when outsider Lyle shows up, the two find an immediate attraction and hook up.

The young lovers, along with Bobbie Jo’s hippie pal Essie (Belinda Balaski), hit the road for a series of adventures that includes trouble with some tough Mexicans at a bar and tripping on mushrooms in the mountains with an Indian shaman. They visit sister Pearl and her sleazy boyfriend Slick Callahan (Exploitation star Jesse Vint), who pulls a payroll robbery that ends when Lyle shoots and kills the guard. Now the quintet, like a modern-day Barrow gang, are hunted outlaws, and when scared Essie drops a dime to the sheriff, she’s killed in the crossfire of a deadly shootout. Lyle vows retribution by pulling off a bank robbery, leading to a crime and murder spree across New Mexico….

Zimmerman’s script transplants BONNIE & CLYDE to mid-70’s America and is peppered with cinematic allusions, including a doomed deputy named Abel Gance. He shows us the ennui of the character’s lives, all of whom are societal outcasts that together form their own version of the nuclear family unit. Mark L. Lester takes the director’s chair; he’s known for some interesting Exploitation films of his own (TRUCK STOP WOMEN, CLASS OF 1999, FIRESTARTER, COMMANDO, SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO), as well as the notorious dud ROLLER BOOGIE. Two side notes: this was the first film for future director Chuck Russell (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, THE MASK, THE SCORPION KING), who worked on the film as Production Supervisor, 2nd Assistant Director, and appears as one of the deputies. Former Monogram/Allied Artists president Steve Broidy (who knew a thing or two about exploitation films) served as co-producer.

Marjoe Gortner, never the greatest of actors, does yeoman’s work as the delusional Lyle, and a pre-WONDER WOMAN Lynda Carter is fine indeed as Bobbie Jo.  The movie is famous for being the only time Lynda goes topless onscreen, but there’s much more to it than that. BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW may not rank as one of the 70’s best films, but I posit here it is certainly one of the most underrated. Am I reading too much into it? Should I just enjoy the violent joyride and the nubile charms of Lynda Carter? All movies are subjective; watch it and judge for yourselves, and see if you agree or disagree.

 

 

Sk8er Girl: Claudia Jennings in UNHOLY ROLLERS (AIP 1972)

UNHOLY ROLLERS combines two of my favorite 1970’s obsessions – Roller Derby and Claudia Jennings! Back in the day, the exploits of Roller Derby teams like the San Francisco Bay Bombers and Philadelphia Warriors, and stars like Charlie O’Connell and “Pretty” Judy Arnold, were broadcast Saturdays on the local UHF outlets alongside professional wrestling. We’d travel down to the Providence Civic Center (now known as Dunkin’ Donuts Center) to catch the violent banked track action live and in person, a rowdy good time for the whole family!

Beautiful Minnesota native Claudia Jennings was an exploitation star of the first magnitude. 1970’s PLAYBOY Playmate of the Year made her film debut with a small part in JUD (1971), and later starred in a series of drive-in action flicks: TRUCK STOP WOMEN, GATOR BAIT, MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, DEATHSPORT, and David Cronenberg’s FAST COMPANY. UNHOLY ROLLERS was her first starring role, and Claudia’s natural charisma is in full effect.

She plays Karen Walker, stuck in a crummy job at a cat food cannery with a sexually harassing boss, surrounded by loser friends like her stripper roommate Donna and Donna’s small-time crook boyfriend. One day Karen decides to chuck it all, quitting her job (and smushing cat food in her creepoid boss’s face!) and trying out for local low-budget Roller Derby team the L.A. Avengers. Team owner Stern likes her “showmanship”, and soon Karen’s crowd pleasing antics take her to the top, alienating her fellow skaters in the process.

Karen’s a pretty screwed-up chick, a feisty wild child straight outta the trailer park (as we see in a scene featuring veteran Kathleen Freeman as her chain-smoking mom). The girl’s got issues, to be sure, and a bad attitude to boot. Roller Derby fame becomes her identity, and of course eventually becomes her downfall. Claudia Jennings shows off some decent acting chops, as well as her body, since she spends much of the movie in various states of undress – not that I’m complaining!! With the right part, Claudia Jennings could’ve been much more than a cult star, but a problem with cocaine caused her to be labeled ‘difficult’, and kept her locked in the exploitation field. Sadly, a head-on collision ended her brief life on October 3, 1979. Claudia Jennings was just 29 years old.

UNHOLY ROLLERS is the feature film debut of writer/director Vernon Zimmerman, who, like the film’s executive producer Roger Corman before him, overcomes the miniscule budget and creates a pretty damn good movie. The seedy world of the Roller Derby and its sleazy denizens form the backdrop for a fine character study of an obviously disturbed young woman. Zimmerman populates this milieu with outrageous yet believable characters, and I especially enjoyed the play-by-play announcing team’s running commentary during the action scenes – it was on point! Zimmerman went on to write and/or direct memorable cult films like the trucker comedy DEADHEAD MILES, HEX (a biker/western/horror hybrid), and BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW (starring WONDER WOMAN’s Lynda Carter and ex-evangelist Marjoe Gortner). His most well-known film is undoubtedly 1980’s FADE TO BLACK, a movie buff’s dream, with Dennis Christopher as a demented horror film fan.

The supporting cast features rotund actress Maxine Gates in her last role as whip-toting team manager Angie Striker, Louis Quinn (TV’s 77 SUNSET STRIP) as owner Stern, and Joe E. Tata (owner of BEVERLY HILLS 90210’s Peach Pit!) as Stern’s dense son-in-law. Exploitation vets Roberta Collins ( DEATH RACE 2000), Princess Livingston (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ), Betty Anne Rees (SUGAR HILL ), Candice Roman (THE BIG BIRD CAGE), and Alan Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE) appear, as do a couple of Familiar Faces out of the past: Dan Seymour (unrecognizable as a used car dealer) and John Harmon, who made his film debut in 1935, as the team’s quack doctor.

UNHOLY ROLLERS credits a young man on his way up as supervising editor: Martin Scorsese, who cut his cinematic teeth on fare like this and BOXCAR BERTHA. The 50’s rock score is credited to songwriter Bobby Hart of Boyce & Hart fame (“(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”, “Last Train to Clarksville”), who was dating Jennings at the time. The vintage songs are performed by Louie and the Rockets, who sound like precursors to The Stray Cats. UNHOLY ROLLERS may not be to everybody’s taste, but I liked the film a lot, and even if you’re not a fan of Roller Derby or Claudia Jennings (and seriously, how can you not be??), if you give it a shot you’re in for a surprising treat.