Almost legendary for its inherent campiness and overheated dramatics, today's film Hot Rods to Hell (1967) is a hilariously high-gear trip that will drive you to fits of hysterical laughter, especially if you have a buddy on hand who appreciates the absurd as much as you do.
Let's get something clear from the start. The movie's poster is an outright cheat. Rather obviously (and quite poorly) cobbled together, it cuts and pastes people and situations together that simply do not happen in the movie! It looks here as if the brunette in the center is about to be assaulted by a pair of hungry lipstick lesbians. Not only is there no such moment, but there is also not one leather jacket to be found in the film on any character. Also, the embracing couple in the car below are not in this movie. At all. Instead, we are given three wayward teens, dressed in colorful shirts, chinos and so on, who cause a bit of havoc for a family of four during a cross-country trip.
But let's start at the beginning. It's Christmastime in Boston and housewife Jeanne Crain, along with her children Laurie Mock and Jeffrey Byron, is awaiting the arrival of husband and father Dana Andrews, a traveling salesman who is on his way home after an extended trip.
He calls to tell them he will be back soon and is loaded down with Christmas presents (which, for some reason, he chooses to cradle up near his face while speaking to them on the phone! Yes, I know it's so they will make it into the camera frame, but Andrews isn't supposed to know that!)
It's all fun and frolic as Byron places his Santa beard onto his sister Mock (creating the second scariest movie St. Nick ever, exceeded only by Lucille Ball wearing a Santa Claus mask in Mame, 1974!)
Crain overreacts to this little bit of pranksterism, giving us a glimpse of what is to come (which is her decision to infuse every third line reading with a deranged, wild-eyed expression and plenty of head/hair swinging!) To be fair, this may also be the face Crain made when her agent delivered the script to her...
Andrews is on his way home when confronted by a drunk driver who is swerving and careening all over the road (while “Jingle Bells” blares loudly over Andrews' car radio.) Finally, there's a smash-up and Andrews is injured and tossed from the car, with aforementioned presents carefully and artfully strewn about.
He is now felled with a horrendous back injury that will require months of recovery and loads of money for medical bills. (No mention is ever made of the apparent head injury that necessitated a big smear of theatrical blood in the prior photo, though he does eventually show some signs of mental duress!)
The presiding physician breaks the news to Crain, Mock and Byron and one is so distracted during the scene it's hard to concentrate on the diagnosis. You see, Doc (Stuart Nisbet) has so much back hair that it's crawling up and out of the neckline of his scrubs! What is the point of sterilized gloves and clothing if a hair hedge is creeping out, ready to fall into the patient's wounds at any given moment?!
After careful deliberation, it is decided that, since Andrews will no longer be able to drive his extensive sales route and the family is close to being broke, the ONLY answer is for them to sell everything and drive from Boston to the deserts of California (!) where Andrews' brother has arranged for him to buy and manage a roadside motel and cafe! (Because we all know there is no physical labor at all involved in the running of a desert motel....!) Mock is horrified at the thought of leaving Boston, though the others get on board with it.
Crain's reaction to Mock's disapproval of the relocation gives us yet another look at the hyper-crazy expressions that Ms. Crain has settled on as her personal signature for this movie. One can't really blame her. It's a colorless, insignificant role that she has been handed, so she must have decided to step up and stretch her near-dormant acting muscles. And after all, Beatrice Straight basically stole this basic look and color scheme (and maybe even some of the faces!) in Network (1976) for eight minutes and took home an Oscar!
Now we're off on the road to the Dailey Motel, which Crain at the wheel and Andrews, white-knuckled, in the passenger seat. The ever-present kids are hanging onto the front seat with running commentary. They are soon beset by a pair of hot wheeled vehicles drag racing on the open road, with little to no regard for the benign, square-looking Plymouth Belvedere that Andrews' family is riding in.
The kids carelessly run Crain off the road, whereupon she decides to just park there, in the middle of nowhere, so that the kids can get out and play and Andrews can get his doctor-prescribed exercise! Mock finds a tree to lean against while Byron and Andrews toss a football back and forth. Then the reckless teens are back and the girl (Mimsy Farmer) tosses a ginormous unopened can of beer at the family!
An outraged Andrews refers to the kids as animals, pronouncing it in a bizarre way that still has viewers scratching their heads lo these nearly fifty years later! The “animals” (Paul Bertoya, Farmer and Gene Kirkwood) pull off the road to a semi-secluded spot. Farmer has been tearing up and down the highway repeatedly with her hair pressed flat by the wind, yet when the car pulls over, her hair is suddenly a thick, full bouffant!
Two of the teens (Bertoya and Famer) decide to get busy together, so Kirkwood is sent packing, on foot (!), to a local gas station!
Sadly, this scene is the only one with any beefcake potential at all and even then it is just Bertoya's back and a side view of his chest. It's made rather clear, though, that despite the lack of skin, he and Farmer have gone all the way.
Andrews, Crain and the kids are once again on the road, but hit another hurdle when one of the tires blows out and the car goes swerving around as Crain freaks out. It occurs to me as I continue to chortle over the way everything concerning the car is handled that this was before power steering was a standard feature and perhaps it was indeed more difficult to command a vehicle than we may be used to now.
As you can see below, Andrews is not about to let Crain get a corner on all the zany expressions. He gives her a run for her money on several occasions himself!
The beleaguered family drives on the rim (!) to a service station, which happens to be the same one young Kirkwood is hanging out at. While they wait for the old timer who runs the place to change out the tire with the spare, Andrews engages in a tete-a-tete with the smart aleck punk. Here we see a shot of Crain and Mock entering the station to rest up. I dearly love snug pencil skirts like this, though perhaps they weren't the most comfy thing for a lengthy car ride!
Anyway, now Andrews has really pissed off the young rebel-rousers because he not only rubbed Kirkwood the wrong way, but they know that he is about to own and operate the motel and bar that they frequent! (It's many miles away, but this entire movie treats the expansive desert as if it's merely a small neighborhood!) They want to scare him into retreating back to where he came from rather than have their little den of iniquity cleaned up.
So we get more of the hot rods (the principle trio invite several of their souped-up friends to join in the “fun”) trying to run the family off the road, box them in, etc... Of course, all of this is accompanied by inane bits of dialogue and off-the-chart facial expressions from everyone. As a side note, chief perpetrator Crain is always chiding other people in her family for going too far or being overly dramatic!
Finally, after a lengthy segment of terror, the Andrews' car pulls off of a long, dusty, otherwise deserted highway and into a heavily wooded picnic grove with a lake and scads of people, none of who were ever seen anywhere near the terrified family as they were being chased down like prey!!
While Mock goes off to dip her feet in the water, we meet a family consisting of blowhard, boozy dad William Mims, his blowsy wife Hortense Petra and their feathered-hat-wearing son Peter Oliphant. Mims drives every bit as recklessly as the juvenile delinquents, but in his case there's a speeding ticket offered up by a patrolman.
Bertoya, who is constantly at odds with Farmer, tracks down the family and manages to slither out to the little deck where Mock is sitting. He accosts her, attempts to make out with her and is rebuffed, though she can't deny she finds him oddly appealing.
At long last the family arrives at the motel, run by slimy-looking, Hawaiian shirt-clad George Ives, and and it doesn't take long to see that it's a hopping joint with loud cars and loud music (not to mention loads of horny teens!)
Music at the bar is provided by a combo led by Mickey Rooney Jr! (That's him in the dark vest. The ceilings are so low in this place, made worse by visible beams, that the owners must have been expecting 5'2” Mickey Rooney Sr. and not his 6'1” son!) His decidedly unspectacular tunes include something called "The Chicken Walk."
Holding court at the bar is none other than curvaceous, colorful Liz Renay, a real-life stripper, showgirl and gangster's moll, who led one colorful life! And I could not love her hair or her ruffled blouse any more under any circumstances!
During all this late-night revelry, Andrews and Crain are fast asleep in their twin beds, but Mock is writhing around in her bedroom, practically in heat, tearing at her hair and spreading it out on the pillow like Cathy from Wuthering Heights (1939)!
She finally opts to get up and change clothes to join the festivities and see what all is going on. (Though it isn't readily obvious in this picture, her top and skirt do not go together AT ALL. The lavender blouse is paired with a black, blue and pale grey skirt.) She has barely entered the lounge before running into a catty, annoyed Farmer who tells her off.
This exchange is interrupted by Bertoya, however, and he gets Mock out onto the dance floor where they give each other their best sultry looks while swaying to and fro.
Andrews stirs and finds Mock missing, throwing the family into turmoil once more. While Bertoya slips the daughter outside for some forced making out, Andrews has been told by the jealous Farmer about Mock's presence at the bar. Andrews attacks Bertoya and tells the present owner Ives that the deal is OFF!
Andrews has hurt his still-injured back in the scuffle and takes to his bed for a massage as Mock pleads her case. Crain will have none of it, though, and ultimately whallops Mock across the face before offering up some stern motherly advice.
Andrews calls his brother, who is still further away than the motel, telling him that he cannot subject his family to even a single night at the place and that they are piling in the car and coming to him. This shot of the wife is THE MOST we ever see of her face. The wordless performance has to be the most thankless role imaginable and, in fact, a wig form on a stick with a robe around it, shot from behind, would have served the same purpose.....
On the way to brother's, the family comes upon a severe accident with flares burning and debris around. We see the feathered hat on the tarmac and instantly realize that the careless drunk from the picnic grove has had a smash-up.
That is small potatoes compared to the horror of the return of the juvenile delinquents who are, by now, fired up beyond belief and seem to want to kill Andrews and his clan! They bear down on the Belvedere, chasing the car off to an abandoned roadside diner where Andrews believes there may still be a working phone. While there, Bertoya traps him and threatens to drive him into the wall with his car.
Somehow a combination of Crain's screams and little Byron's threats cause the boys to back off, but it isn't long before they're at it again. Andrews is somehow able to drive even though the rest of the family claws at him to the point where it looks as if he's traveling with a flesh-toned octopus in the car with him! How he chooses to deal with the punks is something you'll have to discover when you watch this hooty movie.
Hot Rods to Hell is defined by a strange dynamic because it was released in 1967, yet has the feel of a 1950s melodrama. The reason for this lies in the fact that it was inspired by a short story from 1955 called “The Red Car,” which was purchased by MGM for the basis of a teen crime film (to be called “52 Miles to Terror.”) The story was published in January of 1956 (in The Saturday Evening Post), but by March of that year, the wheels had already come off the movie project.
Cut to a decade later and the property was dusted off (with precious little, if any, updating!) for use as a made-for-TV movie. The movie was completed (at 92 minutes), but the producers decided that it was too intense for TV at that time (!?!), so it was recut with 8 additional minutes and put into movie theaters the next year instead. (In 1973, the TV-movie Terror on the Beach pitted a staid Dennis Weaver with his wife Estelle Parsons, daughter Susan Dey and son Kristopher Tabori, against some hot rod driving hippies, proving that some ideas just never get old.)
As noted at the beginning, the artwork for the promotional posters took a few liberties. At no time is Mock's blouse open as it is in this portrait, nor, as I said, does anyone – much less Farmer! - wear a leather jacket.
Here is a bigger, better view of the car from the poster and, as you can see, these to on the right are not Farmer and Bertoya!
This more accurate poster (later used for the burn-to-order DVD) is a lot truer to the piece and contains flattering pencil sketches of Crain and Andrews (even if Andrews looks a tad Boris Karloff!)
Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain had been contract players at 20th Century Fox, appearing together in the Rodgers & Hammerstein original musical State Fair in 1945.
Later, in 1954, they paired up an independent British adventure film called Duel in the Jungle.
Then in 1961, they were back at Fox for Madison Avenue, thus Hot Rods was their fourth big screen teaming (albeit initially intended for the small screen.)
Andrews had become a highly popular 1940s star with movies like Ball of Fire (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to his credit. Though still a name, his popularity began to slip in the 1950s, not helped by a significant alcohol dependency. Nevertheless, he worked up until 1985 (having gotten sober around 1972.) He is notable here in The Underworld for his work in Zero Hour (1957), The Crowded Sky (1960) and Airport 1975 (1974.) He died in 1992 of pneumonia and heart failure at age eighty-three.
Crain made her mark in State Fair, Leave Her to Heaven (both 1945), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and the 1949 racial drama Pinky, for which she was Oscar-nominated (losing to Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress.) Married once (for nearly sixty years!) and the mother of seven children, she eventually began to focus more on family than career and worked on a few European productions. Her last two films following Hot Rods were The Night God Screamed (1971) - and one can only imagine her being stalked by a Manson-like cult in this rarely seen flick! - and Skyjacked (1972.) She passed away from a heart attack in 2003 at the age of seventy-eight.
There was a sixteen-year age gap between the often-paired Andrews and Crain.
Mock had a limited screen career. After some work on TV, she played a Native American in 1965's War Party (which would have made her at home in our recent Indian Corn post!) The same year as Hot Rods, she and several castmates also appeared in the low-budget Riot on Sunset Strip, which was produced by the same man. Beyond this, her show biz career was made up of either TV guest spots or minuscule roles in movies and she eventually turned to real estate for a living. She's currently seventy.
Farmer also worked in Sunset Strip, though she enjoyed a far more prolific career than Mock. Busy on TV and in movies from the early-1960s, she proceeded to a long string of Italian films, many of them well-regarded thrillers, when she moved there in the early-'70s. Later she moved to France and enjoyed work there as well. She is sixty-nine years of age now and has not appeared on film since 1991.
Bertoya was a Canadian who primarily worked as a guest on TV series including Mission: Impossible, I Spy, Mannix and The Mod Squad, though he also appeared briefly in Che! (1969) and to greater effect in the obscure erotic flick Strawberries Need Rain (1971.) He died of unknown (to me) causes in 1997 at only age fifty-nine.
Kirkwood, like several others here, appeared in Sunset Strip, but apart from that only did a few TV roles in the 1960s. Interestingly, he next turned to producing, working on movies like Rocky (1976), New York, New York (1977), Comes a Horseman (1978) and quite a few others right up to this day. In the mid-1990s, he returned to acting for a stretch with small parts in movies such as Guilty By Suspicion (1991), Night and the City (1992) and The Net (1995), among others. He is sixty-nine today.
Young Byron had been plugging along in TV and movies since 1963 and, though he may not be readily identifiable, has been doing so ever since. Apart from roles in At Long Last Love (1975), Nickelodeon (1976) and International Velvet (1978) and many TV guest spots, he has also worked various stints on the daytime soap operas All My Children, The Young and the Restless, All My Children, One Life to Live and Port Charles. In this he came by it naturally, for his mother was Anna Lee, a General Hospital cast member from 1981 – 2003. He recently turned fifty-nine.
Harry Hickox, as Andrews' brother, was a busy character actor for over twenty years from 1953 on. He appeared in countless small roles in movies and on TV, a notable role coming with 1960's The Music Man as Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman who is playfully distracted from turning in the film's conman by a suddenly seductive Shirley Jones. Though Hickox left the biz in the mid-1970s, he lived until 1994 when he died at age eighty-three.
Rooney Jr. was the first born child to his world-famous father (by his second wife, a statuesque beauty queen.) He had the distinction of being selected as one of the original kids on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, but was fired after just a few weeks for behind-the-scenes pranks involving mixing up paint colors. After pursuing music for many years (with only the occasional stab at acting) and working in Willie Nelson's band, he ultimately “got religion” and his own second wife and he entered into musical ministry. He is, like so many from this film, sixty-nine today.
The ever-colorful Renay had to serve a prison term in the mid-'50s for perjuring herself during the trial of her lover Mickey Cohen. Afterwards, it was no holds barred for the voluptuous blonde who streaked down Hollywood Boulevard (when a grandmother!) and authored a few steamy, tell-all books about her crazy life. Surely one of her career high points was starring in the deliriously awful Desperate Living (1977) for John Waters. She died of gastric bleeding in 2007 at the age of eighty with few chances for splashy self-promotion left unexplored.
We're screeching to a halt for this post now and hope you had a fun ride!