Rebel Highway Double Feature: Jailbreakers & Runaway Daughters

jailbreakersA few weeks back I was looking around on Netflix Instant and saw the poster for a Shannen Doherty/Antonio Sabato Jr. movie called Jailbreakers from 1994 that looked very 90s Miramax. Even with all that going for it, it wasn’t the kind of movie I immediately wanted to watch until I looked at the director and saw that it was directed by William “The Exorcist” Friedkin! That was such a bonkers combination that I needed to check it out.

While reading the IMDb trivia page for this movie — something I can’t seem to go 10 minutes without doing after starting anything — I discovered that it was actually part of an anthology series on Showtime called Rebel Highway. The basic idea was to take the title of an old American International Pictures teen movie from the 50s and 60s, give it to a director and have them make a more gritty film with a cast of young up-and-comers. Each project had a $1.3 million budget and 12 days to shoot. Sounds like a pretty rad experiment to me!

So how are the results? Well, not so great in the case of Jailbreakers which suffered from two major problems for me. First off, there wasn’t a frame of this movie that looked like it was from the time period of the story. Actually, that’s not quite the case. More accurately, there isn’t a frame of this film that doesn’t scream, “I was made in the mid 90s!!!” It’s just got that dull look of TV movies from the 90s that, no matter how good your costumes or set dressing are, look like the time it was made in instead of the time it’s supposed to be. I can chalk that up to the low budget and pay cable quality of the day.

The second problem is more, well, problematic and it leads in to the part where I talk about the plot. Doherty plays a high school kid named Angel who was a good girl up until she met Antonio Sabato Jr.’s Tony, a bad boy biker. The two start getting into trouble which leads to them getting caught by the cops. Tony goes to jail while Angel moves with her parents to another town where they don’t know anything about her mistakes. Tony eventually gets out and reunites with Angel only to realize he might be more than just a little bad. Sound familiar? Yeah, it was pretty familiar to me too and hit a ton of notes that I’ve seen before. And, aside from a great performance by Adrien Brody, the tried and true elements don’t get much of a boost from this particular group of actors.

runaway daughters

I had a much better time with another Rebel Highway offering, Runaway Daughters. This one features Paul Rudd and Julie Bowen, though they’re not really the stars 0f this film directed by the always awesome Joe Dante. In this case Mary (Holly Fields) winds up getting together with two of her girlfriends Angie (Bowen) and  Laura (Jenny Lewis who was in The Wizard!) and driving to San Diego in order to grab Bob (Chris Young, PCU), Mary’s baby daddy before he can officially enlist in the army. Along the way they find themselves dealing with crooked cops, crazy preppers and a variety of other problems.

While Jailbreakers took an old story and just did it again with more cursing and violence, Runaway Daughters actually used the framework of this kind of story to get into some actual social commentary. Throughout the film, Laura talks about how ridiculous it is that society shuns young women for having sex when it’s a natural thing. We’re mostly told by TV and film that everyone in the 50s was a buttoned-up square, but that’s a myth. There were plenty of people looking at the norms and realizing some of them were silly.

Plus, while this movie looks the same as Jailbreakers, it does boast a more interesting story and a much better cast. Rudd doing his best James Dean or Marlon Brando impression is a lot of fun. Then you’ve got Bowen playing the instigator perfectly, Dick Miller as a grizzled but also somewhat socially conscious private detective and even appearances by Roger Corman and Joe Flaherty. And those are just the people I recognized. This might be the least Joe Dante movie I’ve ever seen, but it was still an enjoyable outing that adds a nice layer to his filmography. 

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Swinging 60s Summer Shenanigans: Beach Party (1963) & The Spirit Is Willing (1967)

beach party

Like most folks, I’m a creature of habit. As it turns out, I’ve got a pretty set habit of watching certain kinds of movies at certain times. Horror movies in the fall give way to Christmas movies which eventually give way to action movies and the occasional drama and then, when spring and summer hit, I want to watch a combination of 80s comedies, all-time favorites and — the latest entry in the equation — fun flicks from the 60s. Last year I watched a good deal of the Frankie and Annette beach movies including Bikini Beach, Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine, Pajama Party and Ski Party. I also watched Beach Party, but never got around to watching it, so in the spirit of the season and as a way of paying tribute to Annette Funicello who recently passed away, I figured I’d give it another view. 

This is actually the very first in a series of teen beach films put out by a company called AIP that all featured teens usually during summer vacation operating in remote locations on their own with little-to-know parental or adult supervision. While never overtly so, the films play with and talk about sexuality in tongue in cheek ways. Beach Party finds Annette and Frankie (Avalon) heading to the beach to spend the summer in a beach house. Turns out, though, that Annette wasn’t super excited about spending all that time with just Frankie, so she invited their whole crew along.

As dudes in movies did back then — and still do in real life today — Frankie takes his anger at this situation and directs it in a negative fashion by flirting with other girls. That makes Annette angry, so she winds up fancying an older anthropologist who’s in the area to study the mating habits of the modern American teenager who he often compares to tribes from other continents.

Most of the elements found in the latter AIP films can be found here. There’s the rocky relationship (that’s not really that rocky) between Frankie and Annette, lots of surfing, spontaneous dance scenes complete with hot musical acts (this one has Dick Dale and the Del Tones), a biker gang lead by Eric Von Zipper, a few cool adults and healthy doses of innuendo. I like this movie for the same reason I liked all the others: in addition to being a fun and entertaining movie on its own, it also acts as interesting time capsule from an era where teenagers were becoming a whole new demographic, one that was looking to live a completely different way than their parents before them, something that hadn’t really happened much up til that time. Sure, this is a Hollywood cash grab to try and co-opt that, but at the same time, these movies must have had a huge influence on the kids and young adults they were marketed to. It’s like when I was a kid watching Saved By The Bell, that was an interpretation and sanitization of youth as seen by TV execs and writers who were much older than their subjects. And yet, kids like me watched that and internalized it into reality. Fun stuff to think about!

the Spirit is willing

After watching Beach Party, Netflix suggested I watch The Spirit Is Willing. I was completely unfamiliar with this film but become wildly intrigued the more I looked into it. First off, it’s directed by William Castle who directed an all-time favorite of mine The House On Haunted Hill. He also did 13 Ghosts and The Tingler, movies that all took advantage of gimmicks to give theatergoers extra thrills. What intrigued me was the fact that this guy who was so known for straight up horror movies decided to try his hand at comedies. This particular comedy stars legendary comic Sid Caesar and Vera Miles of Psycho fame as the parents of Barry Gordon (the original voice of Donatello on TMNT!). Sid and Vera have decided to rent a house in New England seems nice, but is actually haunted by a psychotic woman who killed her new husband on their honeymoon as well as the maid she found him kissing. She wound up dying too in the craziness.

What you get with the film is a young man who seems to rub his parents the wrong way at every turn in the unfortunate situation of trying to convince his parents that the house his haunted. Things get more complicated from there as the rich uncle comes to visit and gets involved, the dad starts to believe after talking to the town’s local librarian, the mom thinks that dad is having an affair, the uncle thinks the boy is a crossdresser because he’s buying all these different items for an older woman in an effort to get one of the ghosts to show up at a naval themed costume party. Catch all that?

What’s great about this film is that it works on several different levels. Even though I marked it as a horror film over in the categories, it’s about 95% a comedy and 5% a horror film (if that). In fact, the only reason I’m giving it that large of a percentage is that it plays on one of my big fears: knowing that something strange and possibly deadly is going on but not being able to convince anyone else. Plus, you’ve got giant knives of various kinds flying around at people, the near hanging of one of the characters and plenty of ghostly shenanigans that practically destroy the house and this family (the ghosts here have no trouble interacting with the physical world, but can’t talk to the living). As a comedy, it works on several levels. You’ve got the cartoonish slapstick that comes from the ghosts trying to constantly kill each other and anyone they come across. At the same time, the script has plenty of hilarious bits from Caesar (as you’d expect) and young Master Gordon who mixes snotty 60s teenager with Borscht Belt stand-up.

I feel like there’s also other levels that the movie works on. There’s a larger metaphor going on here about how younger and older generations have trouble dealing with one another. That’s the central conflict at the heart of the movie, but I’m not sure if it’s trying to say much more than what it says or if there’s a deeper meaning. It doesn’t really matter if there is or not, though, if you can read into it, it’s there in some way. Anyway, this is less of a focus, but I get the idea that there’s an aspect of “normal life is the real hell” because of how Caesar’s character suffers through the film. There’s a very real and heartfelt moment early on after the kid’s first interaction with a ghost and Sid says something like, “We’re living with a stranger.” As the movie progresses, you can tell he’s got a really heavy heart because of the loss of relationship with his son. We also eventually learn that Casear — an editor — is in danger of losing his job. For some reason he also seems wildly distracted to the point that he dodges the obvious advances of his Vera Miles which is the hardest thing to believe in this ghost tale.

As I said above, the end of the movie gets somewhat complicated as all kinds of subplots come home to roost, but I was impressed and surprised with how the film ended as it was a cross of happy and sad-but-still-kinda-happy. So, let’s call this SPOILER TERRITORY for a nearly 50 year old movie, but there you go. At the end of the film, the snooty, jerky uncle winds up getting straight up murdered by the jilted lady ghost. This allows her to haunt him for all eternity and supposedly leave her husband and the maid to chase after each other on their own. This not only ends her reign of terror, but, unbeknownst to them, alleviates Sid and Vera’s money woes because they’re his only relative and they’ll get all his cash. It was cool implying this at the end of the movie without directly stating it. I also enjoyed that the parents decided to take it a little easier on their kid, even if he was kind of a snotty jerk before the ghosts started wrecking havoc with his life.

While these films aren’t really all that related aside from being comedies from the same decade, I still give each of them a big ol’ thumbs up and recommend anyone check them out.