Teenagers haven't improved their behavior much in the past 50 years, have they? They're still running schools like the Mafia, getting involved in all things illegal, and mocking authority with wreckless abandon. It's time for a "Troubled Teens Triple Feature," with three obscure J.D. classics from the Fabulous Fifties. They're not of the AIP caliber of teen drive-in epics, but are all interesting relics well worth experiencing.
It's teen angst in the film noir mold when you meet the HIGH SCHOOL BIG SHOT! Whiz kid Marvin is a social outcast ridiculed by the cool crowd, so imagine his surprise when lovely Betty sticks up for him when her boyfriend Vincent bullies him and even says "yes" when he asks her out on a date! But Betty is your classic femme fatale, with her own ulterior motives for dating Marv: she needs him to write her English term paper so she can graduate and marry Vince! But Betty plays her sexy part so well that Marv whips up a scheme to pull a heist for $1 million in drug money so he can marry her and provide the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks with diamonds and furs!
For a 61-minute teenie-bopper feature, HIGH SCHOOL BIG SHOT is one bleak little mother of a movie. So little time is spent in the actual high school that one could forget these are supposed to be conniving back-stabbing teenagers! The film is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's brilliant THE KILLING, with Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor, but much darker and cheaper. Marv is such a tormented soul you can't help but cry with him when all his happiness is just blown away with every lousy mistake he makes, in addition to his pathetic father picking up the bottle again after HIS woman dumps him, too! Betty is one tough little cookie, an old-fashioned black widow in a jailbait body, using men left and right just so she can succeed through life and better herself. BIG SHOT isn't filled with any of the exploitation standards, and comes across as a mature approach to the juvenile delinquent subgenre, with a captivating story, well-established suspense, and a great surprise ending. There are some cheesy acting moments from Virginia Aldridge as Betty and some ill-fated attempts at intentional humor, but in the end, HIGH SCHOOL BIG SHOT is a very good departure from the usual "teens in trouble" flick that I can't believe has escaped attention for so long. For some odd reason, it appeared on and was lampooned by the popular "Mystery Science Theater 3000" TV show, adding yet another film to the somewhat long list of good films the program made fun of.
The fullframe transfer for HIGH SCHOOL BIG SHOT is very clean and crisp for a film that probably didn't see a very large release. After a ragged opening shot, there are a few instances of age and wear, such as white lines and blemishes, but the presentation is as a whole pretty darn gorgeous for such an exceptional low-budget film. Infrequent print jumps eliminate some dialogue, but nothing overly noticeable. The mono audio is weak, so you need to crank up the volume to hear the compelling dialogue.
Following such a great slice of low-budget brilliance, you're in for more great teen angst with HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR, starring teen idol John Ashley long before he took a vacation to Blood Island. Ashley plays spoiled rich kid Matt Stevens, the leader of his own personal high school Gestapo. Clad in leather jackets, tight blue jeans, and with greasy combed-back hair, Matt's gang do as they please, inducing fear in students who oppose their tightfisted rule and getting away with rigging the student body president election. Matt even has a raven-haired vixen named Lita do his bidding for him! Of course all the trouble Matt causes stems from the fact that his parents are always away on pleasure trips together, leaving him to fend for himself and look for other ways to get attention. When Matt can't convince new girl Wanda to go out with one of his henchmen, he turns even nastier and even his most dedicated followers see that the emperor has gotten too big for his britches.
You rarely get to see drive-in stud John Ashley playing the villain and it's obvious that he is relishing such a juicy role here, but he also helps create the compassionate side of Matt behind closed doors. He's good to his gang, especially geeky right-hand man Cricket, and is for the most part a kind of likable guy; you kinda feel sorry for him when he's left all by himself and starts crying into his pillow. It's only when he becomes so power-hungry that he turns into a real monster and the Shakespearean ending is just what the doctor ordered. It's actually kind of funny to point out the similarities between this film and 1976's MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH, with a familiar premise, a gang of punks just as nasty as Ashley's bunch, and an almost complete lack of adult presence. Now HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR is nowhere near as good as CENTRAL HIGH, or for that matter, any number of 50s JD flicks; there is little to no action, so those expecting fist fights, fast cars, shootouts, and drug use should look elsewhere (there is a brief drag race, though). But it's a gripping enough teen soap opera, with an expectedly reliable performance by Ashley and plenty of surprises and plot twists to keep you awake.
Presented in its fullframe aspect ratio, the print of HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR is in pretty rough shape and has seen better days, but doesn't detract from the viewing experience. There are a number of sequences with blemishes, print jumps, and what look like paint blotches. Thankfully these problems aren't frequent, and the transfer is still sharper and brighter than Alpha's recent public-domain DVD release. The mono track is pretty strong and easy to hear, with dialogue and music coming across very clear.
And now we come to the final kooky high school relic, DATE BAIT, by the man behind HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR, O'Dale Ireland. It's not as serious in tone as CAESAR, but that could be seen as a blessing, as this stands as the cheesiest flick of the trio. Pretty young rich girl Sue Randall is going steady with likable Danny (Gary Clarke, the "Teenage Werewolf" in HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER), but Danny is soon saddled with trouble when her ex-beau Brad begins stalking her and threatening to kill Danny, even going so far as to start a switchblade fight in the local juke joint! If that isn't enough for him to worry about, Brad's older drug-dealing brother scares Danny into a wild car chase and pummels him into the ground after running him off the road! Think that's bad? Sue's father thinks Danny is poor white trash and refuses to allow his daughter to date such a tramp. With all the odds against them, will young love triumph in the end?
DATE BAIT is one wild JD extravaganza. It's got rock and roll, calypso dancing, violent fight scenes, a psycho teen dope addict, hot cars in fast chases, make-out scenes, hip beatnik lingo, parents who just don't understand, and teens in their mid-20s. What more could you ask for in a movie like this? How about bad dialogue and amateur acting? Yep, and there you have it, the quintessential teens-in-peril drive-in classic. It's not really such a great film, but it has all the right elements of what makes these films so much fun to watch. The theme song by Reggie Perkins is just great, too ("She's my date bait baby and I don't mean maybe, she's my date bait baby for me!"). So go for the DATE BAIT hook, line, and stinker!
Other than speckling during the opening credits and infrequent white lines, DATE BAIT looks pretty great. Crisp and clear contrasts, dark scenes bright and easy to see, and great attention to detail. Sure, there's grain and speckles, and major print damage around reel changes, but big deal, the flick is fun! The mono audio is weak, but it's good enough to appreciate the cheesy dialogue. The music is mixed higher than the dialogue, so you'll have to turn the volume down during dramatic and action-packed moments. Oddly enough, the box says the film is presented in fullframe, but the transfer is mildly letterboxed.
Extras aren't plentiful on this platter, but having three films on a single disc is a good reason why there is little room left for bonuses. Surprisingly, no trailers appear for O'Dale Ireland's teen epics (CAESAR and DATE BAIT), but the trailer for HIGH SCHOOL BIG SHOT is here. It sells the film pretty well, and highlights Betty's vixeny charms superbly. THE CHOPPERS and WILD GUITAR, both starring cult icon Arch Hall, Jr., are available on a Something Weird DVD double feature; CHOPPERS is a more entertaining piece of trash, but GUITAR has Arch Hall musical numbers and a peek inside the great Hollywood starmaking machine. The remaining trailers are for two more films on DVD from SWV: JACKTOWN and THE VIOLENT YEARS. JACKTOWN is notable for featuring a grown-up Patty MacCormack, the original BAD SEED. THE VIOLENT YEARS, written by Ed Wood, stars lovely Jeanne Moorhead from Playboy as the ringleader of a gang of nasty girls who rob gas stations, wreck their school, and rape an innocent young geek! Required cult viewing! The Gallery of Teens-Run-Wild Exploitation Art with Audio Oddities features more of the same posters we've seen on previous discs, in addition to familiar radio spots over the photos (for flicks like TEENAGE MOTHER and SPEED LOVERS). It's all great stuff, just too overly familiar.
All three films on this troubled teens triple feature disc are great examples of low-budget 50s filmmaking aimed at the youth of the time. They all look great in remastered black-and-white transfers and it feels fantastic slipping into a time machine for three and a half hours. Granted, this is not an SWV disc I'll be taking off the shelf that often, but having three 50s drive-in classics preserved together is reason enough to make this a worthwhile purchase. (Casey Scott)
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