BY LEON CHASE
Once upon a time, when sex was casual, production values were low, and drive-in theaters covered the earth, there was a thing called the Teen Sex Comedy. These movies — low on budget, big on female nudity, and hilariously over-acted — offered up countless variations on the same basic coming-of-age morality tale. It goes something like this: some awkward young loser, setting out selfishly to get laid, finds himself falling madly, maturely in love with that special good girl — but not before we get to see a whole lot of the bad ones. (Ill spare you the whole Hollywood-fueled history of virgin/whore complexes behind this, but trust me, theyre there.) Take this age-old formula, add some dumb running jokes, inject it with a healthy dose of good old American vehicle worship, and you have The Van.
What bad things can I say about a movie that lasts all of 35 seconds before giving us the first of many gratuitous nudie shots? From there, the story — or what there is of it — takes off. The hero, Bobby, is fresh out of high school and has only two things on his mind: sex, and his dream van. The van comes easily enough, thanks to his graduation money. And what a van it is! Slick arrow graphics, a huge custom window, tuck n roll interior, a waterbed, mag wheels, a toaster, 8-track player, CB radio, television, and white fur throughout. The movie wisely lingers on these features in beautiful, step-by-step detail. This sequence alone is worth seeing.
Logic dictates that, with the van, the good lovin will follow, but for Bobby it aint so easy. There are lots of tasteless, slapstick moments in which he tries pathetically to lure women into his van and is treated like the sleazy dork that he is. As if thats not bad enough, hes constantly picked on by his buddies at work, his parents are bugging him about his future, and he keeps having run-ins with Dugan, the local van-driving tough guy. Through all of this he finds himself obsessing over Tina, the nice, well-behaved smart girl who of course wants nothing to do with him or his childish vanning ways. His only halfway lucky moment is with an eager, hefty cashier, whose enormous ass breaks his waterbed. (I actually thought this was the hottest part, but Im weird that way.) The sexual suggestiveness is pretty over-the-top, even for this kind of movie. At various points, Bobby sucks on a cigar during a stoplight drag race, fantasizes about his own mother, and, after bedding Sally, Dugans dirty girlfriend, is told Youre much bigger. Subtle, indeed.
Theres a lot of typical ho-hum stuff about falling in love with Tina, and realizing that his desperate come-ons and his van obsession are both part of his immature, adolescent past. After a heated race with Dugan, he actually gives up his vanning ways for the approval of Tina and the alleged happiness of true love. Which, if you ask me, is a crock of shit, and the only real downfall of the movie. I mean, come on, how long will these two dumb, boring eighteen year-olds last, really? Anybody can go and fall themselves in love, but a beautiful, one-of-a-kind custom van — now thats something to devote your life to.
Ending disappointments aside, this is a damn enjoyable flick. Die-hard vanatics will drool over the scenes of van-packed parking lots, and novices will find this an invaluable introduction to the fun-lovin R-rated world that was vanning in the 70s.
I wanted so bad for this movie to be good. And at first glance, it shows signs of greatness. The flick opens with a really nice shot of a twelve-van convoy, complete with CB dialogue and an evil, addictive title song. The story is simple, and promising enough. Clint (aka Morgan the Pirate), a young, freewheelin owner of a tricked out sixties Ford, is on his way to the Non-Invitational Freakout, a huge van happening with a $5,000 prize. He is sidetracked when he has to rescue a young woman, Karen, from the clutches of a local biker gang. She gets saved but the van gets smashed, leaving Clint with a boring romantic subplot and no wagon to show at the freakout. Not to worry, though his local mad-scientist van genius buddy (doesnt everybody know at least one?) turns him on to Vandora, the Supervan a futuristic, solar-powered van that doesnt need gas. Of course the technology has been around for years but Mid American Motors, a major auto company (whose greedy CEO just happens to be Karens dad) doesnt want the word to get out, and will stop at nothing to have the prototype destroyed. It becomes Clints task, then, to make it to the rally, win the prize money, expose the auto company, and begrudgingly fall in love. All the ingredients are here — loads of badass vans, sexual tension, and a healthy dose of Carter-era populism.
The problem? First of all, the acting sucks, and not even in any funny overblown B-movie kind of way. I like to think that the chosen pilot of the worlds freakiest van would have a bit more life to him, but hes really just a grumpy dick, and his girlfriends not much better. Secondly — and heres the really unforgivable part — the so-called Supervan is — how do I say this an ugly piece of shit. The legendary George Barris (of Munstermobile and original Batmobile fame) was hired on to create this thing, but they must not have paid him much. All the details that make a custom van great a unique paint job, a plush interior, the gaudy, flashy accessories are sorely missing from this monstrosity. Instead we get some flimsy black plastic with way too much window, a foam egg-crate interior, and a weird electric hum whose only function seems to be to annoy the hell out of us through the entire second half of the movie. Imagine if Radio Shack built a van, and you start to get the idea. Sure, its fast, but if it doesnt look good and you cant get it on in the back, who cares?
I have this theory brewing that certain late-70s movies can be seen as inadvertent chronicles of Americas shift from the soulful idealism of the post-hippie days to the bleak conformity of the Reagan years. Supervan definitely reflects this, with its touting of a bland, efficient, supposedly advanced machine over other outdated but much cooler vehicles. (Can you say mini van?)
As an artifact, Supervan is mildly interesting, but I cant say I recommend it. As is so often the case, the little background details and stupid comic-relief minor characters end up being a lot more entertaining than the main story. To its credit, there are a lot of cool vans (and their creepy owners) featured in the rally scenes, with loving shots of lots of wacked-out paint jobs and interiors. And the random, pointless 5 mph chase scenes are good for a laugh. If you must see this dud, watch the opening credit sequence, then fast-forward past all the boring story crap to the vanning scenes, where youll see some real, partying people enjoying some truly super vans.
Theres a scene, about a third of the way into this movie, when a near-naked Annie Potts kicks back on the furry waterbed in the back of her very custom van and offers herself up to a virginal, terrified Mark Hamill. Forget kissing, she squeaks. lets screw. Watching that moment, at the tender age of nine, my impressionable little mind made a monumental connection between the intriguing, off-limits realm of sexual experience and the equally mysterious, wild world of customized vans. I have never been the same.
Mark Hamill (obviously a little confused about his career after Star Wars) plays Kenny, an idealistic teenage gearhead obsessed with what has to be the most kickass auto shop project ever created a chopped n supercharged 1973 Corvette Stingray. The car promptly gets ripped off and Kenny, with no real family and only an older teacher to guide him, sets off by himself to hunt it down. His search brings him to Las Vegas, where he meets up with a sassy, van-driving wannabe hooker named Vanessa (get it?), played to endearingly badassed perfection by Annie Potts. Hamill is surprisingly likeable, but the real stars here are Potts and her souped-up whorehouse on wheels. Along with the aforementioned waterbed, the van features a cool Vanessa lettering job, the obligatory wheel flares and chrome, and some truly freaky red carpet emblazoned with the word love in big white letters. (This, sadly, is only visible once, so dont blink or youll miss it.) My only criticism is of the bare white walls which, given the otherwise overhelming decadence of the van, seem begging of a nice fun fur job in gray perhaps, to match the waterbed.
I should mention that, besides showcasing the obvious sex appeal of a hot van, Corvette Summer does a decent job of portraying hot rod culture in general, from the delicious muscle-laden cruising scenes (watch for the black van with the mural) to a surprisingly relevant exchange in the desert, where a slow-rolling Latino lowrider explains the philosophy of style over speed and chides Kenny for his Anglo taste in cars. The Corvette itself should appeal to anyone with a love of true over-the-top flashiness. Its flake n flame paint job, shortened body, dual-feed header pipes, and absurdly overdone hood scoop definitely make it something worth obsessing over, and are a real wake-up call to most of the store-bought shit that passes for custom on the street today.
Without giving away too much of the plot (yeah, it actually has one), Ill just say that Kenny and Vanessa go through some standard (but well-done) love/hate routines, have their obligatory older and wiser life experiences, and get mixed up in some refreshingly un-macho actions sequences, culminating in a pretty funny car chase through the desert. Let me also mention that, by the end, they have each other but have given up both the Corvette and the van. Whats up with that? I understand the whole maturity-equals-giving-up-childlike-obsessions line, but why is it always the vehicle that loses out? Who the hell came up with this asinine concept that true love always means giving up your sweet ride? I concede that the Corvette wasnt technically Kennys to keep (it belonged to the class) and those 70s gas prices would have caught up with him eventually. But whats so bad about the van? Holding onto that van would have enhanced the young couples budding love life, as well as given them both a practical and stylish place to stay. Cant someone out there make a movie in which two people reconcile their dual fascination with sex and horsepower, and are stronger for it? If you ask me, thats a real coming-of-age story.
The last time I saw this movie, a lot of things were differentnot least among them the fact that the films stars, the Ramones, were all still alive.
The Ramones were like Mr. Rogers or the Kool-Aid Manone of those timeless entities I assumed would just always be around, hovering happily in the weird shadowy back alleys of mainstream consciousness. Alas, the past two years have seen the fall of the bands mightiest members Joey, then Dee Dee arguably two of the wildest, ugliest white boys to stain the pages of three-chord rock history. I wont attempt to explain the bands rich (if sadly underpaid) legacy, except to say that, a few years back, when my then-teenaged sister was worshipping at the altar of Green Day and their lesser ilk, I bought her a copy of the Ramones Mania CD and (craggy old punk rocker that I am) threw it at her with the command to do her homework.
None of which does much to explain the existence of Rock n Roll High School, a corny, plodding piece of teenage weirdness that would be mostly forgettable were it not for the presence of punk rocks mush-mouthed, glue-addled pioneers. Legend has it that this movie, produced by B-movie god Roger Corman, was originally intended for Cheap Tricka band who, in 1979, actually was well-known and whose appearance might understandably bring a suburban high school to riot. Instead, Corman got the Ramones. The result is an amazing suspension of reality in which we are led to believe that a town full of teenagers (or rather, 30-year-olds posing as them) would go apeshit over a band who were relatively unknown to the general public and who prided themselves on their complete lack of star posturing or charisma. Add to this the fact that the bands only non-musical onscreen appearances consist of them eating pizza, slouching awkwardly, and attempting to recite about five lines of dialogue between them, and youve got a movie much funnierand ultimately more noteworthythan its makers ever could have intended.
Unfortunately, Rock n Roll High Schools main plot has very little to do with the band, and everything to do with Riff Randell, an obnoxious, stripe-legged rocker whose favorite pastimes are worshipping the Ramones and pissing off the new Nazi-esque principal, Miss Togar (played, incidentally, by Mary Woronov, better known as Warhol superstar Penny Arcade). Theres some crap about Riffs friend Kate, the shy nerdy girl who of course is really hot without her glasses, and a lot of horrible 3rd-grade-level gags about horny hall monitors and rock-listening mice. (This movie deserves some kind of weird credit, too, for managing to assemble the most unappealing cast of girls in 70s Southern California.) Slightly more interesting is the plight of Tom, the blond hunk who, in his desperation to get laid, hires the help of the schools well-connected sleazeball, Eaglebauer (played with trademark creepiness by Corman staple and career nepotist Clint Howard). Eaglebauer, in turn, enlists the aid of Warlock, one gorgeously customized van. (You thought Id forgotten about that part, didnt you?)
Warlock only appears in one scene, but damn, does it shine! The paint job incorporates about a dozen shades of red, as well as Warlock in bold gold lettering and an airbrushed mural depicting the vans namesake. The interior sports several colors of velvet tucknroll and deep shag, as well as beaded curtains, a color TV, a telephone, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and a waterbed with mirrored ceiling. As Tom says, I didnt imagine getting laid could be so expensive.
Sadly, the van never sees any action. Nor does the rest of the movie, really, until the Ramones show up and work their retarded magic. Of particular note is Riffs stoned fantasy sequence, in which Joey croons I Want You Around from the corner of her bedroom while Dee Dee plucks menacingly in the shower and Johnny and Marky just look bored. The climactic riot sequences are fun too, with the hard-rockin Ramones (complete with rolling drum kit) leading a mob of kids through the high school halls. The greatest non-van moments, though, come in the footage of the Ramones live show, where the band shines at its gangliest, most garbled, pure rocknroll best.
Is this a great van movie? No. Is it the best way to remember two of the greatest lost idiot savants of the 70s? Probably not. But for ass-kicking music sequences and bizarre appearances by truly legendary punk rock anti-heroes, RocknRoll High School gets an A every time.