Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Wild Rebels (Comet, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Wild Rebels, a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1967 exploitation film that was a pretty sorry mess of celluloid even by their standards. I had expected this to be a crude but at least energetic juvenile-delinquency film from the 1950’s but instead it was from 1967, it was in color (always a bad sign with an MST3K series entry, since as a general rule the color movies they chose to mock were even more lame than the black-and-white ones), it was about a motorcycle gang attempting to break out of petty rumbling and beating people up into hard-core crimes like bank robbery, and this was not only one MST3K presentation of a bad film which could have been good in the hands of better filmmakers, it was a bad film that had been good in the hands of better filmmakers when Don Siegel directed the ostensible remake of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers in 1964.

Both films deal with a race-car driver who retires after a near-fatal crackup and is seduced by a femme fatale into joining a criminal enterprise and driving the getaway car in a robbery, but when Siegel did this story (with a script by future Star Trek scribe Gene L. Coon) the driver was John Cassavetes, the femme fatale was Angie Dickinson and her boyfriend, the mastermind behind the whole scheme, was played, in an utterly marvelous bit of anti-type casting, by Ronald Reagan in his last film. Here the driver was Steve Alaimo, a name I had heard of vaguely and who turned out to be more famous as a pop singer than as a movie actor — one of those annoying white people who did songs that African-American performers had done better; “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” (previously recorded by Ernie Andrews and Ray Charles) and “Every Day I Have to Cry Some” (searingly covered by Tina Turner on the River Deep-Mountain High album with Phil Spector producing), the femme fatale was Bobbie Byers and the criminal mastermind was Willie Pastrano, an ex-wrestler who ended up in quite a few of Alaimo’s projects in various media.

Pastrano plays Banjo, leader of a three-person motorcycle gang called “Satan’s Angels” (if they’d ever heard of this movie, the real Hell’s Angels would probably have sued!) whose other members include Jeeter (John Vella) and Fats (Jeff Gillen) — Fats having previously been struck on the back of the head with a surfboard (this all takes place in the Florida beach communities) and rendered virtually catatonic, which means at least he doesn’t have to speak any of the God-awful dialogue writer-director William Grefé supplied to the other cast members. The big problem with this movie (there are a lot of little problems, but this is the big one) is that Grefé has utterly no sense of pace at all; each scene drags out v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and takes up at least half again as much screen time as is needed to make its dramatic point (such as it is). Grefé shows an occasional visual flair — and it’s apparent that at some point in his life he’d seen Vertigo because he stages the final shoot-out inside a lighthouse with a long, curving staircase — but the comparisons he’s evoking with Hitchcock and Siegel show him up because those directors were masters at pacing.

Virtually none of the would-be dramatic issues in this plot actually work — Alaimo’s character, Rod Tillman, sells his trailer at the beginning after his painstakingly hand-built stock car burns to a literal crisp following a track accident (and his guitar mysteriously disappears and then reappears during this sequence); another car owner gives him a ride and that car crashes and burns into oblivion during the next race; the races themselves are depicted by stock footage that’s far more washed-out than the rest of the film; the criminals are the most boring imaginable depictions of piss-ant evil (they even beat up some harmless college-student beatnik wannabes because one of them made the mistake of dancing with their girl) and the whole movie is just dreary non-entertainment that even the MST3K crew’s interjections couldn’t make watchable.