Sunday, July 22, 2012


I first became aware of the movie, HOT RODS TO HELL, when it was broadcast on the ABC SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE in 1968. I didn't see that telecast but I do recall seeing the promotional commercials and thinking that it looked like something I wanted to see. I finally scratched that 44-year-old itch yesterday. I should have left it alone. It will probably get infected now.

HOT RODS TO HELL was originally produced in 1967 as a made-for-television movie and it has the utterly cheap look and feel to it that confirms this pedigree. The film was made on back lots and desert locations and has that flat look of so many television productions of the era. The producer of the film, Sam Katzman, had a legendary reputation for turning out low-budget exploitation fare when he worked at Columbia in the 1950s and his reputation for penny-pinching is on full display here. Ironically, the film was deemed too intense for television audiences and instead of being shown on network television, the picture was theatrically released where it enjoyed a fair amount of success on the drive-in circuit. With a title like that, how could it not sell tickets? Eventually, the film was sold to ABC-TV and that's how it ended up on their Sunday Night Movie showcase.

The film stars Dana Andrews as an east coast businessman who suffers a near-fatal automobile accident at the beginning of the film. The accident leaves him with a bad back and severe psychological problems (impotency, anyone?). A fresh start for Andrews and his family (wife Jeanne Crain, daughter Laurie Mock and son Tim Stafford) is provided when they purchase a motel in the American Southwest. They drive cross-country to take over the business and along the way, they're terrorized by the "hot-rodders from hell."

The teenage punks (Paul Bertoya, Mimsy Farmer and Gene Kirkland) are all remarkably clean cut, wholesome looking youth. The boys have short hair, wear straight legged jeans and button-down madras shirts. Gloria (Farmer) is an attractive blonde with a wild streak but none of the three seem exceptionally threatening in appearance. They drive a souped-up Corvette and have several pals who drive other rods of mid-century vintage (the drivers of which remain unknown and never developed characters).

The trio terrorize Andrews for kicks at first until they learn he's going to take over the motel which is a notorious hangout for all sorts of illicit activity. Now it becomes personal and the conflict escalates to a night-time, fiery climax along a deserted desert road.

HOT RODS TO HELL features cars with no visible seat belts or safety restraints of any kind, a law-and-order highway patrolman who never takes off his gold crash helmet (even when driving his patrol car), pretty girls, a passable rock and roll score (provided, allegedly, by Mickey Rooney Jr. and His Combo) and tons of cool vintage cars.

What it doesn't have is any trace of imagination in the direction or script. Director John Brahm, who made some quality film noirs earlier in his career, phones in his last directorial assignment. Andrews, who struggled with booze throughout his career, looks horrible. His hair is badly dyed and his makeup makes him look like the corpse of Ronald Reagan. He exhibits inchoate rage against the "punks" and at one point seems capable of killing one of them with his bare hands.

Can't really recommend this one unless you're a die-hard fanatic and fan of '60s exploitation fare. As such, it's a passable time waster but it ultimately goes nowhere fast.

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