If ever there was a producer who dabbled in every genre possible, it was Sam Katzman: jungle adventures, westerns, biopics, horror and sci-fi, you name it, Sam did it. With the introduction of rowdy rock and roll in the 1950s, Katzman was quick to jump on the “youth rebellion” bandwagon with films like ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK and DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK, both which included performances from popular music artists of the time. Jump ahead a decade or so, and the same formula was being rejuvenated, only in the guise of the counter-culture in RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP, another Katzman exploitation extravaganza made for American International Pictures (AIP) in 1967, now making its DVD debut as part of MGM’s Limited Edition Collection.
On LA’s sunset strip, teenyboppers and the general under-25 crowd (or longhairs as they used to call them) hang out in a popular dive known as “Pandora’s Box”, where they can sip on coffee and soda and see some of the greatest bands on the West Coast. To keep things in order, the police force put a curfew law into practice, but any time youth is subjected to rules and regulations, you know there’s gonna be some trouble. Some of the kids break the curfew, or are found with a few joints or a flask of booze on them, making the police headquarters as hoping as Pandora’s Box.
Blonde good girl Andy (Mimsy Farmer) is the new kid on the block, living with her useless, alcoholic pink-haired mother (Hortense Petra), as they both picked up and ran away from father some time ago. Dad is actually Lieutenant Walt Lorimer (Aldo Ray) of the Hollywood Division, a good cop trying to keep order on the Sunset Strip and remain sympathetic to the over-populating longhairs as the local businessman want them pushed out. He involuntarily hasn’t seen his daughter Andy in years, and now that she's in the same town, he misses her at the station when she’s brought in on a minor curfew-breaking charge. Hanging out with a bunch of thrill seeking peers (including Laurie Mock, who also starred with Farmer in the Katzman-produced HOT RODS TO HELL and Mickey Rooney’s late son Tim) leads to a break-in house party arranged by snotty Herby (Schuyler Haydn), the rich-kid son of a movie star. Andy’s soft drink is laced with acid, she flips out and is “violated” upstairs by five guys (shown off screen). Daddy Walt has a startling reunion with his daughter (found laying on her rape bed), and his unethical way of dealing with the suspected culprits stirs up a picketing campaign against police brutality.
Vividly and handsomely produced, but ultimately hokey and immediately dated (at times resembling a cross between an episode of “Gidget” and the late 1960s incarnation of “Dragnet”), RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP is a classic of counter-culture cinema and Psychotronic films in general. Although the ads (as well as the framed insert poster which hangs in my hallway) claimed, “The Most Shocking Film of Our Generation!”, the true events which the film was supposedly based on only translate into entertaining, colorful camp on screen -- a time capsule of the music, styles, lingo and attitude of the era -- and the film can't be taken seriously. Although Hollywood veteran Ray was already on a downslide career-wise (it would get much, much worse soon afterwards), his starring B pic turn here, is quite good, especially when given the fact that he’s subjected to acting alongside the unprofessional “longhairs from Sunset Strip”. The scene in which Walt goes bonkers and decks his daughter’s attackers in the middle of a hospital waiting room priceless, as is Andy’s acid trip. Seeing cult icon Farmer (who appeared in a number of late 1960s AIP flicks before going to Italy to become an international star) freak out, squirm and wiggle on the cold floor and do an erotic Ann-Margret go-go dance (in slow-mo) is worth the price of admission alone.
It’s the music performances (staged within the Pandora’s Box night club), if anything, that’s given RIOT its unprecedented long-lasting reputation. Two of the greatest garage bands of all time, The Standells and The Chocolate Watchband, perform two songs each, and the far more obscure The Enemies do one number. The Standells give us the incredible pre-punk title song “Riot on Sunset Strip” (“just doesn’t seem fair, to bug ‘cause ya got long hair”) but unfortunately the melodic and haunting “Get Away from Here” (with Larry Tamblyn on lead vocals) is cut short during its place in the film (both of The Standells’ performances in the film are different than what appeared on record). The Chocolate Watchband, features lead singer David Aguilar, a standout frontman (who pulls out the old harmonica and maracas) of the Mick Jagger/Jim Morrison variety, and they do the great numbers, “Sitting There Standing”and “Don't Need Your Lovin”, the latter which is extended in the film to fill out a brawl scene. The Watchband also appeared (briefly) in the Katzman-produced THE LOVE-INS. A soundtrack album for RIOT was issued (and is available on CD with some Standells bonus tracks) and features all four songs mentioned above, but unfortunately it’s missing other songs heard in the film (as well as Fred Karger’s score), and instead the running time filled up with a number of unrelated tracks.
RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP is another one of those AIP films that was never given any kind of home video release, but now we’re ucky to have it on DVD as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection. Although it played on cable TV in recent years in a newly mastered full screen version, the DVD is, I’m happy to say, much better on the eyes, presenting the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The widescreen matting gives the film the composition it clearly lacked during TV airings, and the image is a pleasure to look at and quite flawless. The pristine source material manifests rich, distinct colors, strong clarity and nice detail. The mono sound is clean, with dialog and music both emerging clearly. As is the norm for these Limited Edition Collection titles, there are chapter stops at ten minute intervals.
Where can you purchase these MGM Limited Edition Collection releases? So far they can be found for purchase online at Deep Discount DVD, Oldies.com, Movies Unlimited, Amazon.com and Screen Archives Entertainment. (George R. Reis)
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