A go-for-broke, frequently
funny political sci-fi spoof, Olive Films has released on Blu-ray WILD IN THE
STREETS, the 1968 counterculture satire from American International Pictures,
written by Robert Thom, directed by Barry Shear, and starring Shelley Winters,
Christopher Jones, Diane Varsi, Ed Begley, Hal Holbrook, Millie Perkins, Richard
Pryor, Bert Freed, Kevin Coughlin, Larry Bishop, Michael Margotta, Paul Frees,
and cameos by the likes of Walter Winchell, Melvin Belli, Dick Clark, Pamela
Mason, Army Archerd...and Bobby Sherman. A substantial drive-in hit for AIP
when the counterculture rebellion was just beginning to turn on itself, WILD
IN THE STREETS for years had a fan rep for outrageousness that really only applies
to its big, crazy ideas, rather than to its decidedly hit-and-miss execution.
Still, it’s a nostalgic trip into 1960s social and political hypocrisies,
and most of the cast is seen to fair advantage (with personal fave Shelley Winters
essaying one of her more entertaining big-screen grotesques). Only an original
trailer for extras, for this only okay 1080p HD widescreen Blu transfer.
Max Flatow (Christopher Jones, THREE IN THE ATTIC) is your typical American suburban kid: he hates Mommy (Shelley Winters, TENTACLES) and Daddy (Bert Freed, BILLY JACK) because Daddy loves his new Chrysler more than his kid, and because Mommy hates her sex-obsessed flop of a husband, and because she never really wanted a kid, anyway. Splitting home at 15, we fast-forward seven years. Max is now Max Frost, a multi-millionaire pop star/entrepreneur with a cadre of “troops”/fans who slavishly follow his every word. He lives in a groovy Beverly Hills pad with his band, which includes anthropologist and author (The Aboriginal Cookbook), drummer Stanley X (Richard Pryor, CAR WASH), and be-hooked right hand henchman/lead guitarist, Abraham (Larry Bishop, THE SAVAGE SEVEN). Max’s latest “creature comfort” is former child star and now permanently addled druggie, Sally LeRoy (Diane Varsi, COMPULSION). When Max is asked to perform at painfully liberal Senate hopeful Johnny Fergus’ (Hal Holbrook, MAGNUM FORCE) campaign bash, Max takes the opportunity to hijack Johnny’s hook of lowering the voting age to 18 years old, to demand lowering it to 14...and he’s got an army of kids ready to hit the streets and shut down the world if he doesn’t get what he wants. Johnny’s political mentor, august, outraged Senator Allbright (Ed Begley, THE DUNWICH HORROR), advises crushing the little punk, but quisling Johnny sees an opportunity to co-opt “the Movement,” so he makes a pact with the Devil and dickers down to 15...and that’s all Max needs to eventually storm his way into the White House, where he fundamentally transforms America (?) by permanently confining everyone over 30 years old in re-education camps, where they’re forcibly tripped out on acid.
Written by Robert Thom (BLOODY MAMA, DEATH RACE 2000), and directed by Barry Shear (ACROSS 110th STREET, THE DEADLY TRACKERS), WILD IN THE STREETS begins promisingly enough, with a fast, funny (if obvious, even by 1968’s standards) sketch of what Hollywood types think is a typically screwed-up American household, with frigid Winters heard fighting off her horny husband Freed, declaring she doesn’t want kids, before a quick series of vignettes sets up that she’s an absolutely wretched mother and wife (she screeches, “Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!” at young Max when he’s caught innocently kissing a little girl, and slaps both son and husband when they dare take the plastic covers off her bourgeois furniture). The cliché back in the late 1960s was that every malcontent kid was making a bomb in their basement, and that’s just what Max does—paid for by selling the LSD he also manufactured—before we jump cut seven years ahead to where Max is an amoral, bored, rich hedonist who doesn’t mind paying for two bastards kids he’s not sure about fathering, since their mothers only feed them seaweed and brown rice (“That don’t cost,”). Once Winters spots her long-lost son and realizes he’s rich and famous (“I’m somebody! I’m the mother of a celebrity!...I’m a celebrity!” she rhapsodizes), we’re primed for WILD IN THE STREETS to be a loud, energetic burlesque, with Winters getting big repulsive laughs as she becomes sexually aroused at her son’s material success (when an unhinged Winter orders a clenched Freed, “Oh, Daddy! Tell him you love him!”, and Freed monotones, “I love you,” to Jones, a distracted Winters immediately squeals, “Oh! A Rolls-Royce!” and the effect is utterly hilarious). None of this is even close to an average National Lampoon issue from 1968...but it’s put over with a coarse dash that’s amusing.
Unfortunately, that family reunion scene turns awkward and ungainly (they have Winters run over a kid while wrestling the Rolls’ steering wheel), with Winters then disappearing for the majority of the movie as WILD IN THE STREETS goes down a different road, mining political and social satire through less jokes and a lot more lengthy, and increasingly dreary, exposition. WILD IN THE STREETS’s biggest problem is its uncertain tone. At first we think the movie’s going to play fair with its spoofing, skewering everyone for laughs, particularly when they introduce Holbrook’s smoothly insincere Bobby Kennedy clone (there’s even home movies of a touch football game and a reporter indicating a “Kennedy mystique” about him just in case you still didn’t get it). Here, he’s an entitled liberal brahmin whose own facile ideas about fairness and justice are quickly wiped away when the formidable group of malcontents he’s co-opted for his own power, suddenly turn on him (sound familiar today?). But then, WILD IN THE STREETS ditches this rich vein of mockery and seems to turn serious (Jones cries during his big Jim Morrison rip-off song, over the dead kids at a Capitol Hill riot). Too bad the script isn’t smart enough to indicate whether or not the movie itself is aware of its own hypocrisies (such as Jones lip-synching MONKEES-style to the movie’s real-life Top 40 hit, "Shape of Things to Come"). There are big comedy ideas here, but they’re rushed through so quickly and without import that we start noticing that WILD IN THE STREETS is really a movie about people talking about events happening off screen (the cheapness of the production eliminates a crucial element that would have given the movie scale and weight: masses of kids in big scenes responding to Jones. Nobody even bothers to comment on the movie’s biggest cheat of its own counterculture sensibilities: Jones and crew have to resort to rigging the Senate vote by doping the politicians to get the change they want: the 14-yr-olds couldn’t do it lawfully (and who says every teenager in America back then was counterculture and hated adults and America...only liberal historians and Hollywood screenwriters, that’s who). There are smart, satirical ideas here...but nobody smart enough to really exploit them (maybe somebody like George Axelrod could have; his earlier LORD LOVE A DUCK was a far superior satire on the twisted American family and specifically Southern California living).
We can giggle at seeing an all black-clad Walter Winchell doing his breathless reporter shtick, complete with 1930s press pass stuck in his hat band, or Dick Clark flatly intoning, “Down with experience,” or Bobby Sherman’s profile asking Jones a question (“Peace, love, and Bobby Sherman,” indeed...), or my favorite: Army Archerd reporting that three Orange County matrons died of heart attacks while watching the teen demonstrations on TV (the title of the Asian teen protest song, “Don’t Wanna Be No Yellow Peril,” is pretty priceless, too, as a matter of fact). Jones, soon to be a high-profile Hollywood drop-out himself, wears the same pony tail hair appliance Jack Nicholson had in PSYCH-OUT (that opening musical number looks similar, too), and he does his best James Dean a few times, but there’s nothing in his blah performance to indicate, had he not supposedly suffered a breakdown and gotten into drugs, that his career could have weathered the loss of his pretty looks and youth, and brief fame. Diane Varsi goes through a lot of the movie with her hair covering her face, and when she does act, she appears to be really stoned, instead of an actress acting stoned (and hence: it’s an exceedingly uncomfortable performance). Pryor is wasted playing second fiddle to Jones, and the rest of the youths are anonymous. Holbrook’s ingrained smugness masked as folksiness makes you want to punch him in the face, as usual (Eastwood knew how to cast him); Begley goes to the SWEET BIRD well yet again, and Millie Perkins shows up completely bewildered by it all. As for Winters, she’s balls-out as usual. She’s incapable of phoning it in; she’s always the best thing in these cult movies she kept making back then (just the sight of her getting choked out with a police baton is worth the price of admission).
I can’t say I was blown away by Olive’s Blu transfer of WILD IN THE STREETS. I have the old MGM “Midnite Movies” disc, and while this 1080p HD widescreen 1.85:1 image is a definite uptick...it’s still a little bit grainy, a bit dark, and a tad subdued and sometimes even muddy in its colors. Fine image detail is definitely improved, though, and no noticeable artifacting. The mono audio track is unremarkable; no pops or cracks, but no dynamism, either (the levels seemed way too low). English subtitles are included. An original trailer is the only extra. (Paul Mavis)
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