Monday, June 21, 2010

Vehicular Violence: CRASH! (1977)

Charles Band didn’t always suck. No, seriously, it's true.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that when confronted by the box art for DEMONIC PUPPET DOLLS: THE CURSE OF THE GINGERBREAD BLOOD BONG 5 on your video store shelf (wait, do they still have those anymore?). But stumble across your dusty copy of TOURIST TRAP (1979) and it’ll all start coming back. MANSION OF THE DOOMED (1976), LASERBLAST (1978), and CRAWLSPACE (1985), TRANCERS (1985), and, of course RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and FROM BEYOND (1986). Not to mention the 3-D epics we looked back on last week, PARASITE (1982) and METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED SYN (1983). Even though I like some of Band’s Full-Moon stuff, they were mostly just too pandering and ham-handed to measure up to the old stuff. Flood-lit productions that looked like they were shot for TV, half-assed screenwriting (if there even was a script), low-grade acting and a general sense of lack of respect for their own product. Band was frequently compared to the legendary Roger Corman, but Corman had much more respect for his movies and encouraged creativity no matter how fast they were thrown together and in spite of their the minuscule budgets. However back in the days of Empire Pictures and before, Band arguably came close to living up to that comparison.

Band’s second film as director and producer is the notoriously scarce horror-thriller-car-chase flim CRASH! (1977). Shot for under $100,000 in Piru, California (damn near a stone’s throw from where PHANTASM II [1988] was shot a decade later), this is about a schizophrenic a film as you are likely to find. Or not find, as the case may be, since it hasn't been available on video since the early '80s and even then it was only available on a few small European labels. It’s a fun ride, but it feels like he had two scripts that could have been segments in a TWILIGHT ZONE-ish anthology film, but instead of making a third story, he decided to interweave them into one movie and STILL has a hard time hitting the 80 minute mark! Only Charlie Band.

CRASH!, released in Germany under the rather misleading but infinitely cooler title DRACULA’S DEATHRACE, stars off with… a crash! Not so fast sparky! We have to be treated to a black screen with white credits appearing and disappearing for just long enough to make you want to start digging under sofa cushions for the remote control. An admittedly nifty James Bond-meets-Aaron Spelling score by TV composer Andrew Belling helps pass the time. This won't be the last time Band uses some unimaginative padding to stretch this feature out to a measly 81 minutes, there's more where that came from.

A dream sequence, starts the movie, with a couple of long-haired flower-children in a van, tooling along, wind blowing through their blond hair... suddenly they are run off the road by a ‘67 black Camero convertible that has no driver. The van apparently was hauling a load of nitroglycerine as it flips over and erupts in a giant ball of flame with such force that it manages to rip the hair right off the driver’s head! Not to worry though, the “driver” is a department store mannequin who is amusingly separated from his wig. Kim (Sue Lyon) suddenly wakes up from her dream, in which she was the passenger and got to keep her golden locks firmly attached to her cranium, and drives around with her blond tassels blowing in the wind... in her ‘67 black Camero convertible (cue ominous music). She stops at E-Bay, or what they called it back in the ‘70s, “a drive-in swap-meet”, and wanders around her blond tassels blowing in the wind. Finally, ignoring the number one swap meet rule “Never Buy Anything from Reggie Nalder”, she buys a small black idol from a creepy hippy (?!) to take home to her older husband Marc (José Ferrer), an expert in such stuff. By this time you will probably have had just about enough of seeing Kim drive around, walk around, stand around, her blond tassels blowing in the wind and will probably enjoy the next sequence even more because of it.

Marc, bitter about having a hot, young wife who survived a car-crash that left him in a wheelchair, decides she can keep the damn trinket and kicks her skinny ass to the curb! Kim packs up and drives off only to have a Doberman leap into her car at 40 miles an hour and start ripping her up like Hunter S. Thompson had just shouted “Nixon!” She crashes and wakes up in the hospital with amnesia and an acute case of red-eyed possession that allows her to control inanimate objects with wheels (like, um, cars and wheelchairs) with her mind. All the while clutching the idol that now serves as her keychain. While her husband is plotting to finish the job (we find out that it was his dog that attacked her!), the doctor at the hospital and the local cop try to solve the case of her missing identity and attempted murder. Meanwhile, every five minutes or so we cut to the driverless Camero running someone off the road, being chased by the cops and causing things to just blow up for no reason whatsoever!

Obviously inspired by DUEL (1971), GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974), THE EXORCIST (1973) and TWILIGHT ZONE, you would probably think Band lifted the idea of the black killer car from THE CAR (1977) and the possession from THE MANITOU (1978) as well, but CRASH! was actually released four months prior to THE CAR and a year and a half prior to THE MANITOU. Band has said that the distributors wanted three things (no, not boobs, blood and a beast), as many car crashes as possible, “name” actors and it needed to be shot in scope. Band obviously took those demands with grave sincerity as he rounds out the cast of inexpensive aging veterans, with the man who was the definition of the term, John Carradine, and slams, flips, and crushes dozens of cars in the most gratuitous ways imaginable. And when I say “gratuitous”, I ain't just whistlin'! In one scene the Camero simply speeds through a small town and causes every car in the area to suddenly wreck and explode, along with a gas station, in a massive display of incendiary pyrotechnics. Unfortunately for those of us stuck watching the film on cropped video releases, he took the last missive just as seriously and uses every inch of that scope screen for his cavalcade of vehicular car-nage, leaving many jaw-dropping car stunts cropped to the point of being near unwatchable. Think Fulci’s THE BEYOND (1981) cropped to a 1.33:1 ratio (as in the US release 7 DOORS OF DEATH) with vehicle quarter-panels replacing the bridges of noses and you’ll get the idea.

Even though it's not the best of his early work, is relentlessly padded (including an almost complete replay of all of the car scenes back to back, with a sepia wash, under the guise of a post-amnesiac “flashback”) and it feels like some stoner in a projection booth got bored and spliced together two completely different movies, this is a fun drive-in flick that is screaming for a DVD house like Shout! Factory to give it a nice widescreen release.

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