Monday, September 13, 2010

WHAT IS THE PERFECT "LABOR DAY WEEKEND" MOVIE??? Of course, if the question was Groundhog Day you'd pick . . . well, GROUNDHOG DAY. And a lot of people like watching SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE on Valentine's Day. Christmas? Well, there are too many to mention; as is the case with Halloween when any horror movie including a certain John Carpenter flick from 1978 would do. But Labor Day? The unofficial "end of summer" weekend party when people usually head to the beach one last time or have a barbecue in their backyards (giant wooden tiki idols and tiki torches should be a must!). Well, I'll tell you that there IS actually a Labor Day movie that I like to watch on Labor Day Weekend. The connection is flimsy at best; merely one mention of Labor Day is tossed off during the course of the film. But it DOES establish the film as taking place basically on and around Labor Day. And that film is the perfect one to watch; preferably if you take your dvd player and TV set out to the driveway with a loooooong extension cord and plop them on the hood of your car so that you can pretend you're at a drive-in theatre in 1959. Because the perfect Labor Day Weekend movie to which I refer is none other than the very early AIP classic (!) THE GHOST OF DRAGSTIP HOLLOW.
This B&W AIP film, unleashed upon the world by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff in the pursuit of the honest American buck, was so early in AIP's production history that there isn't even the slightest chance of a Vincent Price turning up for a cameo. DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW combines all those things which were swirling in the Clearasil zeitgeist of 1959: rock & roll, juvenile delinquency, rock & roll, hot rods, rock & roll, teenage horror comedies, rock & roll, ghosts & haunted houses, silent film-type slapstick presented on sped-up film, overactive teenage hormones, rock & roll, slumber parties and rock & roll. I don't think we can really say the film has anything resembling a plot but you'd only be a complete squaresville daddy-o if you went looking for one, ya dig?!? Basically, the film opens with your typical two hot-rodders challenging each other to a drag race through a drainage canal which eventually ends in a crash and a policeman taking down a name and license. HOWEVER, it is NOT typical in the fact that the two drag racers are teenage girls (or at least what passes for teenagers in this film since all the teens look like they're pushing 30). The evil (what passes for evil) blonde bimbo crashes while our heroine (what passes for a heroine) Lois gets away. Lois is played by Jody Fair and she is basically reprising her role from the earlier film HOT ROD GANG to which DRAGSTIP HOLLOW is something of a sequel, I guess. Lois hightails it back to the hot-rodders' clubhouse to which she is a member. A member of the fourth estate is doing a feature story for his newspaper about the teen hot-rodding culture and has been allowed to hang around the (very UN-juvenile delinquent) hot rod club in order to get an angle to his story "The Restless Breed" (hmmm, somebody oughta make a movie with THAT title). The closest thing to a "celebrity cameo" is Tommy Ivo: an actual record-setting drag-racer of the late 50's who spouts about 5 minutes of gearhead gobblegook to the bewilderment of the reporter while showing off his actual winning Buick dragster. The reporter Tom Hendry is played by Russ Bender who, in addition to acting actually wrote the film VOODOO WOMAN starring Fink's Mom! The hot rod club makes its headquarters in a sort-of auto shop/malt shop which features a dancefloor, a performing surf band (more on them in a minute) and a fat guy named Frenchy (Harrison Lewis) in a chef's hat who likes shooting off shotguns. Hendry is informed that the teens have been evicted from their HQ and will have to leave in a couple weeks unless they raise enough money to pay the rent or get another place.
Before we get TOO bogged down with plot elements, AIP treats us to not one but SEVERAL musical performances in a row by rock & roll recording artists who JUST HAPPEN to be on sale at your local record store from AMERICAN-INTERNATIONAL RECORDS label. At one point, a girl even holds up a copy of an actual AIP 45 directly in the camera for a good 5 seconds so we know exactly what to look for. The rock & roll group is apparently called "The Renegades" but I can't be 100% sure about that; the surf instrumentals they play are credited to Nick Venet. The songs are typical surf rock instrumentals that proliferated during this period and are actually quite enjoyable if you're into that kind of thing. Their big "hit", if you can call such an unknown record that, apparently is "Geronimo" (the 45 record I previously mentioned that is held up to camera) in which the band members actually shoot off guns periodically during the song. We are also treated to renditions of other surf instumentals called "Charge" (a western "cavalry"-themed song) and "Ghost Train" which should be self-explanatory. Three of our girl hot-rodders shortly get up and sing (actually lip-sync) a pleasant-little 3-part harmony thing called "He's My Guy" which sounds EXACTLY like it should for a late-50's girl harmony rock song. Then a slow dance number plays called "I Promise You" credited to Bruce Johnston & Judy Harriet; this song I promise YOU is torture on the eardrums as the harmony is mostly off-key. Ah well.
I suppose at some point AIP decided they'd better get back to the plot so we find Lois being grounded by her parents for the earlier drag racing incident with "bad blonde". Yes, this incredibly minor incident made the front page of the local paper! Here we have the only slight whiff of juvenile delinquency in the film since our hot-rod club is so squeaky clean that their charter forbids drag racing or any other similar naughtiness. During this time, an eccentric older lady named Anastasia Abernathy (Dorothy Neumann) comes to stay with Lois' family along with her belligerent parrot who constantly wisecracks and insults everyone. Many sources refer to Anastasia as Lois' aunt but I don't think that's right as I seem to remember Lois' dad referring to her as a "rich client". But I'm not going to go back and watch the film again to clear that up so you draw your own conclusions. Either way, despite Lois' recent grounding her parents allow her to have a party at the house for all her hot-rodding friends! And even more, after the party breaks up and the boys leave, the girls are staying all night for a slumber party! As Lois so 1959-ly puts it while explaining the concept of a pajama party to her square father: "the she-cats nap after the he-cats leave". Ain't she the ginchiest?!? Well, the party goes forward as the house fills with teenagers dancing to, you guessed it, those same surf rock instrumentals we already heard. The "evil" rival hot-rod gang (the one with the "evil blonde") arrives to stir up trouble but, of course, never really does. Then, after all the "he-cats" leave, the "she-cats" don their baby doll nighties for their pajama party; during which they dance and dance the night away and manage to keep Lois' father from getting to the bathroom to have a pee!
You may be asking yourself at this point where exactly the "ghost of Dragstip Hollow" comes in since the film is already 2/3rds over. Well, the hot-rodders are forced out of their HQ and Anastasis Abernathy offers the kids her unsold (and unsellable) property down in Dragstrip Hollow: an old dark house known for being haunted. Naturally, the teens break in their new headquarters with a rock & roll dance party held in the haunted house. The surf band (in goofy costumes featuring bug-eyes, big ears and buck teeth) perform "Charge" while the similarly Halloween-costumed teens sock hop the night away. At one point, AIP's music coordinator Jimmie Maddin comes out in a suit and tie and sings his new "hit" song "Tongue-Tied"! Of course, meanwhile the "ghost" of the house is seen creeping around the outskirts of the party. This "ghost" is actually famed AIP makeup man Paul Blaisdell wearing his SHE CREATURE costume (a head from INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN is also glimpsed). Amongst all the dancing, the rival gang makes another appearance doing nothing more menacing than dancing and arguing. The "ghost" is eventually unmasked and Blaisdell (in a comedy squeaky voice) cries that he's an out-of-work monster movie actor who did it all for . . . well, I really don't know why. Does it matter? Sadly, this would be Blaisdell's last work for AIP so his role was shockingly prophetic and the moneymaking SFX man (who worked on such AIP flicks as IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN and THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED) would fade away into retirement. The film quickly wraps up after this unmasking (and the revelation that there is STILL a real ghost in the house -- it walks out of a painting towards the camera) and the wonderfully 1959-era title card comes up on the screen: "The endest, man"!
THE GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW is not a great film by any means; but it's such a great film!!!! You know what you're getting when you start watching it and you certainly GET it. Really bad, bad comedy, rock & roll surf instrumentals, old dark house shenanigans, a little bit of drag racing, teen angst (lite), the generation gap (mild) and juvenile delinquency (almost non-existent) genres all smashed into one film. This film, more than any other, pointed the way towards what AIP would do in the 1960s with their Frankie & Annette beach movies and it, more than any other AIP film, provided the template for that cash cow. The Astounding B-Monster site makes this "astounding" (but actually somewhat logical) claim for the film: "Believe it or not, this cloying stretch of celluloid is, in many ways, a most important document. While hardly an intrinsic watershed, it marks a very definite progression in the history of the cult film. It is Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow that, more than any other film, bridges the cultural gap that once yawned between the J.D., hot rod flick of the 50s, and the foam-flecked dreck of the beach-blanket genre that drenched the drive-ins of the 60s." The film was leisurely directed by the rather unfortunately named William Hole. In addition to Paul Blaisdell, there are also a handful of other familar names in the credits including Ronald Stein providing the musical score and Daniel Haller's art direction. I don't know if you'd call the script written by Lou Rusoff "juvenile"; perhaps you'd rate the comedy more accurately as "sub-juvenile" since the stuff that's meant to be funny isn't but only produces a groan. Which, I suppose, makes it funny due to its sheer ineptness. The film is really just a perfect drive-in movie which can be enjoyed while munching popcorn, running to the concession stand and generally horsing around; in other words, you don't have to pay strict attention and take notes. It's all just a lump of silly fun and I can't think of a better way to spend an hour and a half out of your Labor Day Weekend each year.

2 comments:

Dis Guy said...

I usually go with Norma Rae for my Labor Day viewing

Cerpts said...

Communist!