So what happens to great actors when they hit the bottom of their careers? Well, in the 1960’s they found themselves starring in the legendary drive-in movies of yore, and if you are British actor Dana Andrews that means you find yourself starring in the wildly outrageous and hilariously over the top juvenile delinquent film Hot Rod to Hell! With a title like that how can it not be a winner? Hot Rod to Hell is one of the drive in greats that is so bad it’s awesome, but actually manages to provide some tension building action sequences as a New England family race for their lives against sadistic thrill seekers in souped up roadsters! Its road rage at its finest combined with overacting at its worst making for one big drag race of B-movie goodness.
Dana Andrews plays family man Tom Phillips, who, while coming home one Christmas night, is plowed off the road by a drunk driver. Barely escaping death, Tom has a long recovery, but suffers from a bad back and a fear of the world, and especially being on the road. Unable to work again, his loving wife, played by former Hollywood glamour girl Jean Crain (obviously also at the end of her career) and his brother, played by character actor Harry Hickox, persuade Tom to buy a hotel in the California desert where he can live a seemingly peaceful existence. Packing his plucky young son Jamie and his pouty teenage daughter Tina in the back seat of the family station wagon the Phillips’ head out to California and a new life. However, their optimism changes when they encounter three reckless teenage daredevils, the brutish Duke, his sidekick Ernie and psychotic slut Gloria, hot roding down the desert highway. After a confrontation at a gas station where Tom gives Ernie a “stern talking to,” Ernie discovers that Tom has bought the hotel. However, what Tom doesn’t know is that he also has bought the local teenage hang out called The Arena full of rock n’ roll, underage drinking and other hedonistic pursuits. Determined to not allow a “square” to break up The Arena, Duke and Ernie decide to make sure that Tom Phillips and his family doesn’t stay in California, resulting in terror and treachery on the California highway.
There is no other way to put it. The acting in this film stinks. I mean really stinks. But if you love B movies the way I love B movies, you know that it stinks in all the right ways. Each of the actors in the film, including veterans like Andrews and Crain, completely over do it to the extreme, making an odd sense of rhythm to the film. Dana Andrews stomps around grimacing and giving stern lectures about highway safety and the evils of reckless driving to anyone who will listen. Jean Crain looks like she’s going to have an aneurism just trying to keep everybody happy and take care of her ailing husband. Bad boy Dutch, played by Paul Bertoya, slinks around being despicable and sexually aggressive. Son Jaime Phillips, played by Jeffery Byron, gives enthusiastic one liners (“I’m going to be a prospector”), making himself into a virtual human Ralphie Wiggum. Daughter Tina Phillips, played by the lovely Laurie Mock, who looks like a cross between Donna Loren and Amy Winehouse, mopes and pouts as she becomes the damsel in distress to Dutch’s sexual advances again and again. Even Paul Genge, in the minor role of a traffic cop, grits his teeth and scowls trying to look authoritive in a hilarious performance. However the real gem of the film is the outrageously over the top performance by Mimsy Farmer as “girl gone wild” Gloria. Providing the strangest performance in the film, Farmer really overdoes everything she is supposed to do. Whether she is laughing, crying, pouting, day dreaming, screaming, fucking, threatening or just being freakin’ crazy, Farmer does it to the extreme with hilarious results.
But Hot Rods to Hell isn’t just about the bad acting and dialogue. Despite the flaws, Hot Rods to Hell does provide some true thrills and a real sense of danger, drawing in the viewer to want to stay until the bitter end, wondering if Dana Andrews and his family will ever find peace and the new life they need. The highlight of the film is truly some outrageous stunt driving on the California desert as Duke and his friends terrorize the Phillips family along the highway. One key sequence featuring the family being chased by six roadsters is particularly gripping and filled of white knuckle tension. The producers of Hot Rod to Hell at least got that right. The film is also well paced, and is never bogged down by unnecessary material. It may often be silly and preachy, but Hot Rod to Hell is never boring.
Hot Rods to Hell was originally intended to be a television movie, but due to the censors deeming it too risqué for television it was moved to the drive-in circuit. However, as a result, the film ends up being a bit to tame compared to the majority of the films that were appearing at the drive-in, only adding to the charm and appeal of the film. But, Hot Rod to Hell wasn’t without its groundbreaking moments. When a Coca-Cola bottle was spotted in the film being drank by Duke, Coca Cola forced Warner Brothers to black out the label on the bottle, not wanting to be associated with the character drinking the beverage. This would be the first act of corporate censorship in film history!
One of my favorite B movies and juvenile deliquesce films, Hot Rod to Hell is an odd drive in classic from a bygone era that has found a cult status all its own. Truly a great watch, Hot Rods to Hell is required viewing for cult movie fans.