FIREBALL 500 (1966)/THUNDER ALLEY (1967)
Directors: William Asher, Richard Rush

After the success of the innocent and family-friendly “Beach Party” films, AIP didn’t seem to know what to do with the likes of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funnicello. The days of fun in the sand, surfing and weenie roasts were quickly becoming passé as THE WILD ANGELS road their hogs in Panavision, so Frankie and Annette ended up taking one final bow for AIP together in FIREBALL 500, an outwardly more “mature” effort than what they had been used to. The following year, Annette was back (without Frankie) alongside FIREBALL 500 co-star Fabian in THUNDER ALLEY, another stock car-themed quickie. Both films are also tied by producer Burt Topper, and make for pleasant Saturday afternoon fluff -- nothing earth-shattering or innovative, but easy enough to sit though. MGM’s double feature disc, under the "Midnite Movies" banner, was previously only available in Canada and hits U.S. store shelves in June. Hopefully, this won’t be the last Midnite Movies set reviewed at DVD Drive-In.

Directed by William Asher, the man behind most of the “Beach Party” epics, FIREBALL 500 is flighty mix of car racing, romancing and moonshining, with Avalon pretty much holding the whole thing together. Entering the picture singing while driving (the same way he exits), Frankie plays Dave Owens, a determined-to-win racer who arrives in South Carolina from California. Dave runs into promoter cigar-chomping Charlie Bigg (Harvey Lembeck), convinces him to let him enter a major race, and wins when competing with his rival and popular favorite: cocky Sonny Leander (Fabian, who doesn’t sing in either this or THUNDER ALLEY). Dave has sights on Sonny’s girl Jane Harris (Annette Funicello), niece of carnival owner Big Jaw” Harris (Chill Wills), but involuntarily becomes tangled in a nightly cross-country race that’s a cover up for a moonshine operation. Dave catches wind of this, helps the feds in their investigation, and finds time to romance wealthy blonde heiress Martha Brian (Julie Parrish), who owns the local raceway.

FIRBALL 500 basically follows the formula of many a 1960s Elvis Presley movie, with the leads shown driving against blue screen backdrops while more rousing race car footage takes center stage. Many fans compare this to the “Beach Party” series, but it’s actually quite different, proving that the target audience was growing up (well, only slightly). Yes, Frankie sings several songs and Annette sings one, and even though they are sugary as ever, that’s really where the comparisons end. Frankie is more of a tough guy here, not being able to easily win over Annette, who as the good girl, doesn’t get into a bathing suit, but her shapely figure is still a site to behold, however she might be dressed. Harvey Lembeck trades in Von Zipper’s black leather gear and Brooklyn accent for a white mechanic’s suit and Southern drawl for his role as Charlie Bigg. He and Frankie (and their stuntman) get into a rowdy fight which is more extreme than anything in a Beach film. But more shocking is seeing Julie Parrish (a few years younger than Avalon, but obviously playing an older, more experienced woman) embracing a shirtless Frankie, lowering her hands to his ass, and squeezing it tight! There’s a crash that ends up in death, dated music by Les Baxter, and a rather morbid ending. AIP regulars Floyd Crosby (cinematography) and Daniel Haller (art direction) are on hand, but this is far from their best work, and Len Lesser (North Dakota Pete in HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI) has a cameo. The beginning and end credits offer some brief clay animation from Art Clokey, who worked on several other AIP titles but is best known for “Davey and Goliath and “Gumby.” FIREBALL 500 would be the last feature that Frankie and Annette starred in together until 1987’s BACK TO THE BEACH.

In THUNDER ALLEY, Fabian plays Tommy Callahan, a Daytona stock car driver who has psychedelic blackouts when he’s boxed in during a race. One such blackout causes the death of a competitor and forces Tommy to retire. He then takes off with his sex blond gal pal (Diane McBain) and gets a job at a “thrill circus” run by money-hungry shyster Pete Madsen (Jan Murray), who puts him in his show as “Killer Callahan.” Madsen’s daughter Francie (Annette Funicello) is a stunt driver who falls head over heals for Tommy, who agrees to teach her boyfriend Eddie Sands (Warren Berlinger, who starred with Elvis the year before in SPINOUT) to become a pro racer. Tommy takes on the challenge, while getting into a number of brawls and deciding which chick he’s going to stick with.

If anything, THUNDER ALLEY is better paced than FIREBALL 500, mostly due to the direction of Richard Rush. Unfortunately, THUNDER ALLEY is ordinary compared to Rush’s other, edgier efforts of the period: HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS, PSYCH-OUT and THE SAVAGE SEVEN. This was Funicello’s final role for AIP, and she’s the cast member who stands out here. Still the good girl, Annette can play it serious (like when she tells Pete’s girlfriend of her feelings for him) or for laughs (like a scene where a dazed Francie is boozing it up while tearing up the road), and it’s a shame she didn’t do more for AIP afterwards in less-typecast roles. It’s interesting to note that Annette’s crooning of the tune “What's A Girl To Do” is included here, but was missing from most other versions (including MGM’s pan & scan VHS edition from a few years ago). Good support comes from rotund character actor Stanley Adams, and even though the score is credited to Mike Curb, the hip guitar riffs are performed by the great Dave Allan and the Arrows (THE WILD ANGELS, DEVIL’S ANGELS), who where not given screen credit.

With FIRBALL 500 and THUNDER ALLEY, MGM offers impeccable transfers we’ve grown to expect from their long-running “Midnite Movies” series. Both titles boast brilliant, bright 1960s colors, and are visually stunning overall, presented in Panavision widescreen (2.35:1) and anamorphically enhanced. Suitable mono audio tracks accompany both features, as well as optional English, French and Spanish language subtitles. The only extras are the original theatrical trailers, which for some strange reason are stripped of any voiceover narration, despite that it’s obvious it was meant to be there. (George R. Reis)