Friday, May 06, 2011

They'll Steal Your Heart...And Rob Your Bank

Three relatively minor Roger Corman productions pop up on this easygoing, no-frills DVD as part of Shout Factory's Roger Corman's Cult Classics collection.

The cream of the crop is 1976's THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE. The late Claudia Jennings (TRUCK STOP WOMEN) had one of her best roles in this women-on-the-run pic that predates the similar THELMA & LOUISE, but she’s overshadowed by her co-star Jocelyn Jones (TOURIST TRAP), who has a juicier role to run with.

Just as soon as Candy (Jennings) busts out of prison, she’s back at the lawbreakin’ game, using the explosives experience she picked up on the joint’s road construction crew to rob banks using dynamite as a weapon. On her first gig, she runs into an unexpected ally—Ellie Jo (Jones), who’s just been fired from her teller job for being late and enthusiastically aids Candy in collecting the cash. With no plans and no one else to turn to, the young women decide to team up as “dynamite women,” (also the film’s alternate title in some drive-ins) traveling around Texas in a Rolls Royce knocking over small town banks. Johnny Crawford (Top 40 fans might remember his hit, “Cindy’s Birthday”) plays Slim, a hostage who becomes a partner and Ellie Jo’s lover.

Although released by New World Pictures, TEXAS lacks a certain energy that characterizes most of that studio’s output (it was produced elsewhere as a negative pickup for New World). Both leads deliver fine performances, although only Jones has a well-rounded character to play. We learn little about Candy, just that she has a family and served time in prison for some unknown offense, and her character doesn’t progress much from there. As befitting a former PLAYBOY Playmate, Jennings spends much time unclothed, asserting her sexuality as she wills.

Jones, the daughter of familiar character actor Henry Jones (ARACHNOPHOBIA), also appears nude, as does Crawford, who must have stunned audiences who grew up with him as Chuck Connors’ little boy on THE RIFLEMAN. Director Michael Pressman, still a successful journeyman in television more than thirty years later, stages a few car chases and shootouts, but not spectacularly so (though putting the actresses inside the car while another one driven by stuntmen weaves alongside is fairly impressive). Disguising California as Texas isn’t so easy, particularly when Pressman (DOCTOR DETROIT) uses the same Newhall city block to represent two different towns.

While TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE certainly lives up to the last three-fourths of its title, perhaps MILDLY DIVERTING TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE is more applicable.

One of Dirk Benedict’s first post-GALACTICA roles was in 1980's TV pilot GEORGIA PEACHES. An obvious attempt to copy THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, PEACHES features plenty of amazing stunts, including car jumps, a couple of Rockford slides, Benedict driving through a wall of fire, and a helicopter explosion that sends large chunks of flaming wreckage awfully close to the stuntmen.

Country star Tanya Tucker and Terri Nunn (later to sing “Take My Breath Away” with Berlin) topline as Lorette and Sue Lynn Peach, co-owners of a Georgia body shop that the local Boss Hogg, devilish Vivian Stark (Sally Kirkland), has her eyes on. To get rid of the Peaches, Vivian frames the sisters and Sue Lynn’s moonshine-drivin’ boyfriend Dusty (Benedict) for car theft. To clear their name, the trio go undercover for T-Man Dukane (Lane Smith) to bust Vivian for cigarette smuggling.

Nunn and Benedict play with twinkly charm. Tucker is appealing enough and gets to sing a few songs. On the downside are R. Donovan Fox’s indecent score, Kirkland’s unmemorable villainy, and lazy plotting that could fit any number of countrified action movies filling the network airwaves at the time. At least director Daniel Haller (BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY) keeps it all moving like a pro, providing his boss Corman with decent car-crash fare. CBS aired the pilot in November 1980, but it didn’t go as a series. Corman released it theatrically overseas as FOLLOW THAT CAR.

Last and least on the DVD is 1981's SMOKEY BITES THE DUST, which recycles not just action scenes, but also the plot of GRAND THEFT AUTO. Teenage wiseguy Roscoe (minor teen idol Jimmy McNichol, Kristy’s brother) kidnaps homecoming queen Peggy Sue (Janet Julian, who was Janet Louise Johnson when she was doing all those Glen A. Larson TV episodes) and is chased across the California countryside by Peggy Sue’s overprotective father and sheriff Turner (Walter Barnes), religious football player Kenny (future star William Forsythe), Roscoe’s friend Harold (John Blyth Barrymore), the car’s owner (New World regular Dick Miller), and a roster of lowbrow comic types.

Like other comedies directed by Charles B. Griffith (UP FROM THE DEPTHS), SMOKEY is jammed with off-kilter wordplay, broad stereotypes, non sequiters, and funny names, and very little of it is funny. What pleasure SMOKEY provides is more likely due to second unit director Allan Holzman (FORBIDDEN WORLD) and the earlier movies Griffith steals footage from, including MOVING VIOLATION, THUNDER AND LIGHTNING, and EAT MY DUST! (which Griffith also directed). Mel Welles (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) is a sheik, Rance Howard (GRAND THEFT AUTO) is a football coach, Angelo Rossitto (THE CORPSE VANISHES) is a hotel clerk, and Griffith appears as a deputy.

With three movies on two discs, one can't argue he didn't get his money's worth, even though the only extras on the set are trailers for GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE and SMOKEY BITES THE DUST. CBS promos for GEORGIA PEACHES would have been cool, but who knows if any still exist. By the way, the PEACHES print is a 1.78:1 theatrical version titled FOLLOW THAT CAR, CHASE is also a nice 1.78 print, and SMOKEY is a blurry but watchable full-frame print, probably taken from the VHS.

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