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. 

Party On: Pajama Party (1964) & Ski Party (1965)

After watching and really enjoying Bikini Beach, I’ve been on an Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon kick. Pajama Game is not part of the surf movie series as Annette plays a different character and Frankie’s barely in it. However, the motorcycle gang called The Rats does show up, so maybe this is a Mallrats/Chasing Amy kind of thing and different actors just play different characters in the same universe. Anyway, this time around, a group of kids hang out at the beach and at nice houses with pools. Anette’s boyfriend is more interested in volleyball than anything else (clearly asexual) so she winds up falling for a new boy in town named George. Meanwhile, a neighbor wants to break into a widow’s house and steal all the money her husband left, so he convinces her to have a pajama party to cause a distraction.

Oh, by the way, George is actually a Martian played by Tommy Kirk who also played Biff in The Absent Minded Professor (an often played film in my house growing up, his dad in that movie was the old guy in Bikini Beach!). He’s supposed to be paving the way for an alien invasion, but winds up falling for Annette which works out fine because her boyfriend would rather bump balls.

Oddly, the trailer for the film isn’t on YouTube, so here’s one of the musical numbers:

This movie was very high on fun and hijinks. I love the elaborate way the widow has to go about getting her money. I love the low tech way they set up a teleporter to bring in more Martians for the invasion. I love how instead of relying on either one of the two storylines (breaking into the old lady’s house, alien invasion) they went with both of them along with all the teen drama that usually surrounds these story. I love the cameos by Dorothy Lamour, Buster Keaton, Avalon, Don Rickles and a couple of background dancers/actresses better known as Teri Garr and Toni Basil.  Really, I just loved this movie.

In the following year’s Ski Party, Annette plays a cameo as a professor while Frankie and a fellow college student pal go off to a ski resort to pick up chicks. To get really close to the ladies, they decide to dress in drag to infiltrate their ski class…and maybe learn a little something along the way.

While this film might have been far less complicated than the previous one, I was impressed with how funny it was. Sure there’s the goofy, campy stuff like Frankie inflating his ski coat to go further on a ski jump and accidentally flying all over the place, but there were also some really funny jokes that are still funny today.

One the stereotypes people might have about these kinds of films is that they’re tame by today’s standards. And yeah, that’s true from an on-the-nose perspective. You’re not going to see any topless women or kids randomly hooking up, but that’s more because that kind of stuff wasn’t sold in teen films back then. But all that stuff is still there below the surface. I was surprised with the use of the word “sex” in these movies because it was like they were actually admitting the teenagers want to have sex (shocking!). A lot of creative types say that rules and regulations actually push them to be more creative when it comes to bawdy jokes and dealing with sex and I think that shows in these movies.

Oh, that reminds me of something. As you might expect, homosexuality isn’t mentioned whatsoever in these movies, but I think elements of it can definitely be seen on screen. Pajama had the boyfriend who was more interested in volleyball, which doesn’t really mean anything, but in this one, Frankie’s pal dresses up like a girl and it actually works for him. When, as his guy self, he calls up a girl and gets shot down, he dresses up like his girl self again, calls up a boy who was flirting with him earlier and they go out. And have a wonderful time. Heck, he spends the rest of the movie talking about how great this guy is and that he things he can make a marriage work with him, forget about that whole being a man thing. I guess you could argue this was played for laughs (“This would NEVER happen, so it’s funny!”) or if something got slipped past the censors. I can’t remember how Frankie’s pal ended the movie, but I thought that was a really interesting subplot. For what it’s worth, Frankie did not support his friend.

Another great thing about these movies is the music. While Pajama Party didn’t have anyone I recognized, Ski Party featured none other than the God Father of Soul, The Hardest Working Man In Show Business, Mr. James Brown! AS A SNOW RESCUE GUY! He literally rolls into a lodge on skis with cocktail carrying German shepherds, says a few jokes and busts into “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Holy poop! Oh, Leslie Gore sings “Sunshine, Rainbows and Lollipops” too, but that’s nowhere near as cool as James Brown. Double oh, Yvonne Craig — TV’s Batgirl — stars as one of the objects of affection. I think she was my first ever crush.

So, I just spent a great deal of time bestowing the virtues of these films, but I think the most important thing to take away is that they are silly fun with a real “Up With Kids” vibe to them. It’s funny to think that, right now as I watch these movies, I’m older than the characters in the film (though probably the same age as some of the actors). Even as a burgeoning fogey, I still relate to the themes in these flicks and can’t imagine living in an even more buttoned-up society. Remember, the sexual revolution was still a few years away from really blowing up, so this was the best kids had of seeing even the remotest, nicest form of rebellion on screen (I haven no idea if this is completely factual but it sounds good, doesn’t it?).