In the latest wave of MGM's beloved Midnite Movies line, there were very few new-to-DVD double features. Most of the discs consisted of previously-released films paired with new-to-DVD films. Thankfully there were at least SOME double-feature discs with both films making their digital debut, and this one pairs two of AIP's most popular films of the 60s, both of which have an anxiously waiting audience to appreciate them.
Unhappy teenager Max Jacob Flatow, Jr. (Christopher Jones) becomes sick and tired of his emasculating mother (Shelley Winters) and runs away from home after ripping apart the living room and blowing up his father's new car. He grows to be Max Frost, a multi-millionaire in the music industry who makes top dollar selling his great rock records and publishing music by young artists. The pack of punks making up his group includes stand-up legend Richard Pryor in his first major appearance outside of "The Ed Sullivan Show," hook-handed Larry Bishop (seen recently in KILL BILL VOL. 2), perpetually high blonde nymph Diane Varsi, and 15-year-old Kevin Coughlin (who is actually the earliest positive gay character I've seen in cinema, free of stereotypes and proud of his homosexuality). After learning that 52% of the population is under 25 years old, he capitalizes on a musical appearance at Senatorial candidate John Fergus (horror favorite Hal Holbrook)'s political rally by instigating his own political campaign to infiltrate the Senate, then become President of the United States. He recruits supporters from his nationwide fan club, and even steals Fergus' son Jimmy from him, transforming him into a jive-talking asshole, much to the chagrin of his mother (the much too young Millie Perkins, wasted here). Watch for Dick Clark in a cameo as a news reporter and future "Greg Brady" Barry Williams as the young Max (wonder if he remembers being slapped by Shelley Winters?!).
Released in the turbulent year of 1968, Barry Shear's WILD IN THE STREETS has been one of the most-requested Midnite Movies nominees since the line was introduced. It seems that the film was one of the #1 most-wanted AIP DVD releases because of the its obscurity. Its brief VHS release now demands top dollar on eBay and in trading circles and it has only recently started receiving cable play again. But after the positive reputation the film has gained over the years, I was sorely let down by this anti-youth picture posing as a rebellious teen flick. The lead role of Max Frost was originally offered to singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, who turned it down after reading the script and correctly believing it portrayed the counterculture movement in a negative light. Instead, the part went to charismatic Christopher Jones, who unfortunately doesn't exactly infuse the character with as much likability as Jones would in later films. Looking ridiculous with a ponytail sticking out of his not-that-long hairdo and proud of the multitude of illegitimate bastard children he has spawned with nameless, countless women, Jones plays the sneering egotist to the hilt, and makes it hard for the audience to actually support him. His political goals are motivated by a mix of sheer boredom and a senseless need for power and affection; hiding beneath this slimy veneer is a true love for children, but it doesn't appear enough to make his political campaign anything more than personal gain. This is the film's major problem: for a film obviously aimed at the young teenagers of the time who were, the "heroes" are painted as self-indulgent assholes. While Max Frost is built up as the hero of the youth movement of the late 60s, the parallels between the young upstart and Adolph Hitler's uprising can't be overlooked (the obvious hand motions and frenzied speeches being the most obvious, and then there's the dictatorial laws he inflicts on the over-30 crowd and young Gestapo in all-black uniforms). He constantly calls his youthful followers "troops" and "babies." Not only are Max Frost and his posse a nasty whitewashing of the popular hippie explosion of the decade, but the idiotic youth that voted for the drug-addled tyrant are just as much a target of the script, showing them as easily manipulated by the media and acting as lemmings.
The best element of the film is the incredible musical score by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, including the superb 60s anthem "Shape of Things to Come." Several labels have announced plans to release the complete soundtrack to the film over the past couple of years, but to date, no CD has materialized. Other than the great songs, I left WILD IN THE STREETS feeling angry and hateful of the 1960s counterculture movement, which might have been the ulterior motive of the filmmakers in the first place. Do yourself a favor and re-visit PSYCH-OUT or THE TRIP for a more fun, entertaining view of the psychedelic scene of 1967/1968.
On the flip side of the disc is another controversial political release by AIP, GAS-S-S-S!, the last film Roger Corman directed for American International (more on that later). Young hippies Coel (Bob Corff) and Cilla (STUDENT NURSE Elaine Giftos) discover that a military snafu has resulted in the release of a toxic gas that kills everyone over 25. The world becomes a chaotic maelstrom from the get-go, with the intellectuals believing they can become the new leaders over the jocks and potheads that tormented them and young military cadets going apeshit with their weapons! The two young lovers trek across the country, looking for their own way of living, and encounter a rambunctious quartet of rebels who join them in their adventure: Cindy Williams is Marissa, a wise-cracking pregnant girl with a passion for music (five years before she had her best comic role in FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL and "Laverne and Shirley" ruined her cool factor for years); Ben Vereen is Carlos, a black tough-talking cowboy in a Zappata-look outfit; Bud Cort (HAROLD AND MAUDE) is Hooper, a cigar-chewing stone-faced sharpshooter; and Tally Coppola (aka Talia Shire, future ROCKY heroine) is Coralle, Hooper's dimbulb fiancée.
Opening with a tacked-on crudely-animated political assembly with a general with the voice of John Wayne (apparently tacked on by Arkoff and Nicholson), GAS-S-S-S! is a real mess and a half. Does that make it a chore to sit through? On the contrary, this is a superb time capsule which has aged better than its DVD co-feature. Taking a simple premise and rolling with it, the incredibly witty script (by George Armitage, who also penned DARKTOWN STRUTTERS and countless New World films for Corman) packs the films with kooky setpieces to keep it interesting and unique: a shootout where the gunmen shout out names of cowboy actors before shooting, with big names resulting in kills ("Gabby Hayes!," "Tim McCoy!," "Lee Van Cleef!," "Jim Brown!," "Gene Autry!," "John Wayne!"), Cindy Williams going ga-ga over a used record store packed with oldies but goodies on 45 RPM's ("This is the music that rocked the '60s! Chuck Berry got out of jail, Elvis got out of the army, the Silver Beatles started, the Stones rolled, the Jefferson Airplane landed in San Francisco, and Dylan sang what was going down!"); Edgar Allen, a caped mortician, and Lenore, his silent blonde companion, giving a word of warning about the dangers of gaining control of the world...before taking off on his motorcycle (!); Country Joe and the Fish performing live at a transformed drive-in before being paged by God that their car lights are on (?!); a psychedelic sex scene with a light show projected on the nude bodies of the participants; an all-American town ruled by the local high school football team, who wreck havoc on geeky kids, the cheerleading squad, and raid every store in town; and various intelligent pokes at social mores and sacred cows of American culture. To give away more would be criminal, as discovering this neat little morsel of exploitation is a real pleasure.
The cast uniformly delivers tongue-in-cheek performances, with the real stand-out being straight woman Elaine Giftos, the sensible one in the group who spends most of her time enjoying the crazy sights and sounds she encounters in her journey. Giftos has a superb sense of humor and a sexy personability that many of her contemporary drive-in starlets didn't possess. It's no wonder she lasted longer than most of them, well into the 1980s and graduating to featured roles on TV series. The final edit of the film may not be what Corman originally intended (in a version that must be lost, as MGM's superb restoration team would have likely uncovered it and released it on this DVD), but what remains is roughly 90% of his original vision and doesn't come across as a lost opportunity (the voiceovers of "God" and the original panoramic ending are apparently the only real omissions). GAS-S-S-S! is certainly one of the most surprising films of the 1970s and neatly bridges the change of decades with the sensibilities (or lack thereof) of both eras.
Both features are presented in their original aspect ratios, 1.85:1, and enhanced for 16x9 TVs. WILD IN THE STREETS suffers from grain in obvious stock footage moments and during several key scenes with Shelley Winters (does she affect film somehow?!), but the musical numbers and colorful costumes and sets look sharp and the mono audio delivers the music superbly. GAS-S-S-S! looks just as good, with mild grain during some outdoor scenes, but mostly offers sharp colors and a bright, nice-looking transfer. The mono audio is incredibly strong, with dialogue, sound effects, and the almost non-stop rock score coming across loud and clear.
The sole extras are theatrical trailers, which typical of AIP are stupendous recruiting tools for the drive-in audiences. I had hoped that MGM would ask Roger Corman to contribute at least an interview for GAS-S-S-S!, explaining how the finished product differed from his vision and discussing the making of this underrated drive-in classic, but beggars can't be choosers and at least it's been released.
NOTE: MGM's August 24 Midnite Movies are in-store exclusives to Best Buy, but they can also be found online at CD Universe, as well as Canadian retailer DVD Soon. (Casey Scott)
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