Monday, September 4, 2017

Dana Andrews vs. Hot Rods to Hell

A dear friend was recently involved in a car accident en route to the airport for a vacation. Fortunately, no one suffered serious injuries--but a sore back, a banged-up knee, and a two-week vacation delay is no fun. So, he turned to a comfort movie later that day...selecting Hot Rods to Hell.
Gloria and the guys out for some kicks on the highway.
Ironically, this 1967 cult classic starts with a car accident when family man Tom Phillips' car is hit by a drunken driver on Christmas Eve. Tom (Dana Andrews) sustains a severe back injury that ends his career as a regional salesman. His brother Bill convinces Tom to give up his Boston home and buy a hotel in a small California town. Tom resists initially, but eventually makes the big decision with the support of his wife (Jeanne Crain) and young son--but not his teenage daughter Tina.

Laurie Mock as Tina.
As they cruise along a desert highway toward their new home, the family runs afoul of a trio of thrill-seeking teens in souped-up cars. The youths harass the Phillips family--almost running them off the road--until Tom seeks sanctuary in a well-populated picnic area. While waiting there, Tina meets one of the trouble-makers, a handsome lad named Duke. That night, she sneaks out of her room at the hotel to look for Duke in a nearby rock 'n' roll joint. She finds him and the sparks fly, but Duke wants more than just a flirtatious dance....

It's easy to dismiss Hot Rods to Hell as a campy melodrama with outdated dialogue. Two of the most overwrought scenes feature Tina, writhing in bed as she thinks of Duke and later frantically clutching her father in the car as Duke and a pal play "chicken" with the Phillips family.

Mimsy Farmer as Gloria.
Yet, she is no match for Gloria--the wildest of the juvenile delinquents, who is aptly described as "way out." That she is, but she's really no different from Marlon Brando's restless biker in The Wild One (1953). Gloria is desperate to do something, noting that: "Everybody's out for kicks. What else is there?" She even makes suggestive promises to slimy hotel owner Lank Dailey, hoping that he will take her to L.A. or Vegas.

In a historical context, Hot Rods to Hell serves as an intriguing transition from the Beach Party films of the early 1960s to the violent biker pictures heralded by the previous year's The Wild Angels (1966). It's almost as if the alienated youth characters from the 1950s had regressed from Brando's gang leader to parodies like Eric Von Zipper and then moved forward again with Duke and Gloria and eventually the Hells' Angels.

Jeanne Crain as Tina's mother.
Originally titled 52 Miles to TerrorHot Rods to Hell was intended as a made-for-TV movie for ABC, but it was deemed too intense and released theatrically. Ironically, it made its television debut a few years later and was shown not only uncut--but with ten additional minutes.

It's an entertaining time-capsule film with a rock score performed by Mickey Rooney, Jr. and his Combo. My only major complaints are that the ending comes across as a cop-out and that Gloria, the film's most vibrant character, disappears well before the climax.

Mimsy Farmer, who played Gloria, and Gene Kirwood, who was Duke's pal Ernie, enjoyed intriguing careers after Hot Rods to Hell. Mimsy Farmer married an Italian screenwriter and forged a solid career in European cinema. Her most famous role may be as the female lead in Dario Argento's 1971 thriller Four Flies on Grey Velvet. As for Gene Kirkwood, he became a producer on films such as Rocky, The Idolmaker, and New York, New York. That's just proof that alienated youths can grow into responsible adults.


  1. Maybe they should have gone to the State Fair instead.

  2. I always like Mimsy Farmer and wish she had a bigger career. She was always great as a bad girl.

  3. Looks like an interesting bridge from Beach Parties to Biker flicks, as you said. Would be interesting to see Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain here.

  4. Couple other tv movies that went to theatres first - Welcome to Hard Times, and The Killers, the latter helping the careers of Lee Marvin and Don Siegel. It also has a future President roughing up a future Police Woman.

  5. Loved the climax when Andrews was going to cave the punk's head in with the tire iron.