We all have at least one guilty pleasure film that is so terrible, but we inexplicably love it.
I have several, and one of them is the 1967 drama/thriller “Hot Rods to Hell.” It is one of those films where you laugh at the ridiculous lines and moments but have a desire to rewatch it constantly.
Originally made for TV but released in theaters, the camp film stars veteran Hollywood stars Jeanne Crain, as Peg Phillips, and Dana Andrews, as Tom Phillips.
This is one of four films Andrews and Crain made together during their Hollywood careers that spanned the 1940s through the 1970s.
Their first film together was movie musical “State Fair” (1945) where Crain plays a farm girl named Margy who meets Andrews, a reporter named Pat, and falls in love with him at the state fair.
“State Fair” ends with the two happily running towards each other and kissing in the street.
I like to imagine that “Hot Rods to Hell” is Margy and Pat 22 years later with their children.
The movie follows the couple and their two children Tina, played by Laurie Mock, and Jamie, played by Jeffrey Byron, as they move from their New England home to run a motel in California after Tom is in a serious wreck.
The film begins with Tom driving home from a business trip to celebrate Christmas with his family. A reckless driver causes the accident and leaves Tom with a back problem and some mental issues. Due to the wreck, he no longer wants to drive and can’t listen to Christmas music.
Tom’s brother arranges for the family to move to California to run the motel, believing it will benefit Tom’s physical and mental health.
As the family is driving through the desert in their station wagon, they encounter teenagers drag racing a modified 1958 Chevrolet Corvette.
“Run them off the road, Duke. Run them off the road,” shouts the teenage girl Gloria, played by Mimsy Farmer, as she is perched on the back of the car as they race.
The teenagers are children of local, wealthy farmers who don’t care what the teens do. The teenagers have a constant thirst to get their “kicks” but nothing will satisfy them.
“What kind of animals are those,” Tom shouts as they are nearly run off the road. “They are insane.”
Peg covers her face with her hands and screams, “Tom I can’t stand it!”
Tina, who desperately wants to be a hip teenager, defends them by saying that all the kids drag race.
The majority of the 92 minute movie involves Duke, played by Paul Bertoya; Gloria and Ernie, played by Gene Kirkwood, harassing the Phillips family on the road. They tailgate the family through small towns, try to run them off the road and follow them to a picnic ground, where Duke attempts to seduce Tina.
Tina is frightened but fascinated with the bad kids.
When the Phillips finally arrives at the motel, rather than finding solace, there is more trouble.
The motel and the adjacent a bar and grill are inhabited by the drag racers and other teens like them. The previous owner allowed the teenagers to drink and have trysts in the motel. It makes you wonder if Tom’s brother did any research on the spot before encouraging the Phillips to move there.
When the drag racers discover the Phillips are the new owners, they do all they can to make them leave; knowing Tom will sanitize the spot.
Frightened and disgusted with what they find, the Phillips decide to stay the night at the hotel before figuring out what their next move should be.
Tina, still fascinated with Duke, goes to see him at the bar, almost like she is thinking, “Oh these people have been terrorizing my family all day. I think I’ll go hang with them.”
Jealous Gloria tells Tom and who tries to strangle Duke.
“Tina how far would you have gone,” Peg yells at her daughter. “Are you going to end up in a motel room with any man?!”
The family leaves the hotel to get the police, and the drag racers continue to follow the Phillips family.
“Oh they’re back again,” Jamie screams. “They want to crack us up!”
After even more harassment, Tom finally and successfully stands up to Duke and Ernie.
Tom places his car in the middle of the road in a game of “chicken” and the family hides. Duke and Ernie swerves to miss the car and crashes.
The crash causes an immediate attitude change and the boys tell Tom they won’t give him anymore trouble. The film ends with Tom deciding to go back and run the motel properly.
“Hot Rods to Hell” is truly a terrible movie, but I can’t get enough of it.
The hilarious lines and the over reacting to the situations make it a true guilty pleasure and cult classic.
But at the same time, it’s sort of sad. To see 1940s and 1950s stars Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain late in their career and performing in this type of film is disheartening.
Crain was a top star at 20th Century Fox in the 1940s and 1950s and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “Pinky” (1949).
Dana Andrews previously starred in top notch films such as the noir “Laura” (1944) and the post-war drama “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).
However, Andrews had children in college so he had to work, said the Carl Rollyson biography “Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews.”
While the old glamorous and glittering Golden Era of film was fading, the top stars were retiring or resorting to cult films like this one to continue to make money.
To compare, Joan Crawford was killing people with an ax in “STRAIT-JACKET” (1964) and Lana Turner was drugged with LSD in “The Big Cube” (1969).
While I marvel at the beautiful films in the early careers of these stars, I also can’t get enough of their late careers. Classic Hollywood’s career downturns have turned into our guilty pleasures.
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