Originally published at Fine Print Magazine, DG is pleased to present the return of Jason Coffman’s look at the world of the Vansploitation film to commemorate the DVD release of the documentary VANNIN’! Check out part one here, and part two here!
Mag Wheels (aka Summer School) (1978, dir. Bethel Buckalew)
Perhaps the least van-oriented film in the Vansploitation cycle, MAG WHEELS nevertheless fulfills the requirements for admission and comes complete with an impeccable exploitation pedigree: writer/director Bethel Buckalew was responsible for such “hicksploitation” films as THE PIGKEEPER’S DAUGHTER, TOBACCO RODDY and COUNTRY CUZZINS. Additionally, he had worked as a production manager on Matt Cimber’s blaxploitation films THE BLACK SIX, THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN and LADY COCOA. MAG WHEELS was Buckalew’s last credit as a filmmaker, although whether this was due to the film’s box office performance or the filmmaker’s choice is unknown. It is not hard to imagine audiences avoiding MAG WHEELS, as despite its sunny opening scenes this is easily the darkest of the Vansploitation films, with some really unpleasant scenes and a seriously bleak ending.
Anita (Shelly Horner) is starting things off right at her new school: she’s ditching class to go to the beach. While getting a suntan, she runs into a group of Vanners who also attend her new school, led by Steve (John Laughlin). Steve and Anita hit it off right away, much to the irritation of Steve’s girlfriend Donna (Verkina Flower). Much to Steve’s irritation, a group of Truckers (girls driving pickup trucks) led by Jill (Phoebe Schmidt) appear and drag the Vanners’ vans into more friendly parking positions. This opening scene establishes the personal conflict between Donna and Anita and the larger battle of the sexes between Vanners (all male) and Truckers (all female) that dominates the film. It also raises an interesting question: How many kids are actually in school on this particular day?
“Trucker” Jill is seduced by the comforts of the van. Oddly, this van does not have a water bed.
After the day on the beach, Anita serves as a sort of go-between for the two groups, befriending Jill and the Truckers while she is pursued by Steve. The Truckers and Vanners meet one afternoon for some friendly games (driving up a hill, pillow jousting in a creek, etc.) and at least one hookup in the comfort of a van as one of Steve’s friends tries to convince Jill that vans are superior to trucks. They have sex in the back of the van while the Vanners’ put-upon “Pledge” (Steven Rose) is forced to sit on a rock and play a love song on his acoustic guitar. Anita and Steve go for a walk after Steve loses a pillow fight and she initially tries to avoid his advances, at least partially due to the fact that Donna is a sociopath and that Steve thinks virginity is “stupid.” As far as unwanted advances go, Anita has more than she can handle when her boss at the skate park tries to get her to trade sexual favors for her paycheck. Her difficulties fitting in at the new school and avoiding being raped by her monstrous boss are compounded by troubles at home, where her father constantly berates her. In short, Anita’s life starts off miserable and only gets worse as the film progresses.
Donna exhibits her insane jealousy by running Anita off the road after she gets off work one night (leading to another round of yelling from Anita’s dad over the busted headlight), fighting Anita in the middle of class (causing Anita to be expelled from school) and later making it look like Anita called the police to report a drug deal going down in the skate park parking lot and almost getting Steve busted. This last little prank causes Steve to totally lose it, and he and the Vanners track down Jill’s truck, run her down in the middle of nowhere, and attempt to gang-rape both Jill and Anita. Fortunately the other Truckers arrive (helpfully notified of the situation via Jill’s C.B. radio) before the Vanners can go through with their plan. This incident fuels the rivalry between the Truckers and the Vanners to the point that they finally decide to have a Drag-Out to settle matters once and for all. A Drag-Out is a sort of tug-of-war with vehicles on either side of a ravine, in which the losers would presumably get pulled over the edge and die. Anita, desperate to prevent anyone from getting killed, steals her dad’s car and drives it directly into the ravine, stopping the tug-of-war at the cost of her dad being able to drive to work. Also, it nearly kills her, and the film ends with Steve dragging her out of the car and shouting “She’s alive!” while the Vanners and Truckers, once again united, cheer from the hills. Presumably Anita will get yelled at some more in the hospital.
George Barris (center) talks to Steve about having more work done on his van.
MAG WHEELS actually features a cameo appearance from George Barris, presumably playing himself*, when Steve goes to the shop to pick up his van. In addition to the love scene in one van, there is also a scene where the Vanners “dance” along a wide highway in their vans, but otherwise the vans in MAG WHEELS mostly play a supporting role to the teenage drama surrounding Anita, Donna and Steve. The film’s title presumably comes from the scene in which Donna calls the police to report the supposed drug deal at the skate park, during which she describes the offending vehicle as having “mag wheels.” The version of the film available on DVD, however, has the SUMMER SCHOOL title.
Unsurprisingly, many of the actors who appeared in MAG WHEELS had only a few credits (or just this one) in their film careers. Shelly Horner (“Anita”) is particularly awful, haltingly delivering almost all of her lines as if she is reading them from a cue card off-screen or just having a hard time remembering what to say. Verkina Flower (“Donna”) is the daughter of b-film legend George “Buck” Flower, and appeared in Stu (C.B. HUSTLERS) Segall’s DRIVE-IN MASSACRE and Matt Cimber’s THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA. Her next film after MAG WHEELS was SUMMER CAMP, directed by Chuck (BLUE SUMMER) Vincent and featuring John F. Goff (“Boots Clayborn” from C.B. HUSTLERS). John Laughlin (“Steve”) also appeared in SUMMER CAMP, and went on to establish a long career of acting in both films and television.
Van Nuys Blvd. (1979, dir. William Sachs)
Director William Sachs made a few independent films in the 1970s, including THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, before being hired by Crown International Pictures to helm a Vansploitation film. After the success of THE VAN, Crown wanted to take advantage of the “Van movie” market before it disappeared, a situation which they cannily observed was imminent. Sachs was given a very short schedule to knock out a film that would capitalize hopefully on both the waning van craze and possibly disco as well. According to the director’s commentary on the VAN NUYS BLVD. DVD (collected in Mill Creek’s Drive-In Cult Classics Volume 3), Sachs had 7 days to write a script and 18 days to shoot the film. The result is a film that Sachs intended to be something of a satire of “car movies,” and easily the most technically competent Vansploitation film.
Bobby (Bill Adler) sees a news report about cruise night on Van Nuys Blvd. and decides to ditch his small town, where there is “no competition” for his van, and head to the city. He leaves his nude girlfriend in his trailer and hits the road, making it to Van Nuys Blvd. in time for some prime Wednesday night cruising. Once Bobby reaches Van Nuys, the film introduces its other major characters: Chooch (David Hayward), who’s been cruising the strip longer than anybody can remember; Moon (Cynthia Wood) and Camille (Melissa Prophet), a female Vanner and her best friend; Greg (Dennis Bowen), a goofy, impulsive redhead; Wanda (Tara Strohmeier), a promiscuous rollerskating waitress; and Officer Al Zass (Dana Gladstone), the cop who busts Chooch every Wednesday night and hates cruisers. Bobby, Chooch, Moon, Camille and Greg all end up in overnight lockup together after Moon challenges Bobby to a race, and the next day the group all decides to go to Magic Mountain together.
Wednesday night: Van Nuys Blvd. on a typical cruise night, 1979.
Bobby is too dense to realize that Moon is falling for him until Greg points it out, but Greg and Camille are immediately attracted to each other. Chooch gets sick on the rides but picks up Wanda on his way home after leaving the park. Wanda is on the side of the road in a shirt and little else after tricking Officer Zass, who attempts to rape her, into getting handcuffed to his police cruiser on a remote beach. The rest of the film follows the three new couples on adventures and occasionally returns to Officer Zass, stranded with his police car and baking in the sun. When Moon reminds Bobby that they still have to finish their race, Chooch lets them work on their vans overnight in the garage where he works. Bobby spends all night tuning up his van, which angers Moon, who wonders when Bobby is going to grow up and forget about vans, which are like all he has thought about the last couple of days since they met.
Like THE VAN, VAN NUYS BLVD. ends with a climactic race. Unlike THE VAN, Bobby wins the race, but this only further angers Moon, who accuses Bobby of caring more for his van than he does for her. To prove her wrong, Bobby drives his van off a cliff (actually a gentle incline that looks about 6-8 feet tall) and “destroys” it (although it lands right-side up and is probably actually still fine to drive). Moon, confused, attacks Bobby, shouting “WHY DID YOU DO THAT? YOU LOVED THAT VAN! I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU DID THAT!” She then drives away, leaving Bobby at the edge of the cliff, but then turns around, returns to him, and throws her arms around him, signaling the end of one era and the start of a new one: Chooch and Wanda are getting married and moving away, and Chooch has sold his awesome car to Al Zass, who has apparently decided to take up cruising full-time.
“It was never our intention to be serious with this movie,” Sachs helpfully points out in his commentary track. Indeed, there are plenty of ridiculous situations our characters find themselves in, perhaps the most bizarre of which is Greg dressing up as a girl and pretending to be Camille’s friend coming over for a sleepover and arousing the interest (ahem) of Camille’s father. Most of the hijinks the characters find themselves in are amusing, although Al Zass’s attempted rape of Wanda is completely out of place. Everything else in the film is played at near-Looney Tunes level, broad comedy with easy targets. The vans are relegated to supporting roles, really only appearing in the races that bookend the film and as a setting for a pair of very different love scenes—a food fetish scene that comes completely out of nowhere (“I never knew it could be like this,” says Bobby, covered in ketchup and mustard), and a more traditional love scene between Bobby and Moon.
Moon and Bobby prepare to tear up the dance floor.
VAN NUYS BLVD. crams in quite a bit in its 100-minute running time: van races, a trip to Magic Mountain theme park, an extensive disco sequence, a go-kart race, and a pretty great original soundtrack. Sachs claims on the film’s commentary track that Van Nuys Blvd. was basically shut down after the film came out due to a sudden explosion in its popularity as a tourist attraction, which would seem to indicate that the film was fairly successful. Still, Crown International appeared to be out of the Vansploitation business after VAN NUYS BLVD., and they did not make any more van-centric films, although they would continue to chase popular themes with their own attempts to grab the same audiences as the major studios (see their inspired knock-off of PRIVATE LESSONS, MY TUTOR, for a prime example) all through the 80s.
William Sachs directed two films for Crown International Pictures, VAN NUYS BLVD. and GALAXINA. Both films featured female leads who were Playboy Playmates of the Year: Cynthia Wood (“Moon”) in VAN NUYS BLVD. and Dorothy Stratten in the title role of GALAXINA. GALAXINA, of course, became the stuff of Hollywood legend when it was released the same day of Stratten’s gruesome, tragic murder at the hands of her ex-husband. Sachs went on to make the teen sex comedy HOT CHILI in 1985 and a pair of films in the late 80s (THE LAST HOUR and JUDGMENT), and his latest film was 2004’s SPOOKY HOUSE, a family-friendly horror/comedy starring Ben Kingsley and Mercedes Ruehl.
Moon and Bobby prepare to tear up the asphalt.
Many of the principal actors in VAN NUYS BLVD. had some success in acting for film and television, but the film marked the last feature appearance for its star Bill Adler. After appearing in a handful of standout exploitation and genre films (including Jack Hill’s SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, Joseph Ruben’s THE POM-POM GIRLS and Jeff Lieberman’s BLUE SUNSHINE) and doing some work in popular television series like Wonder Woman and CHiPs, Adler retired from acting during a Screen Actors Guild strike in 1981 and went into business designing, manufacturing and selling his own line of belts under the name Billy Belts. Today, Adler runs Bill Adler Design and counts Nike Golf among his clients. He probably leaves VAN NUYS BLVD. off his resume these days.
On the Air Live with Captain Midnight (1979, dir. Beverly and Ferd Sebastian)
While ON THE AIR LIVE WITH CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT was released in November of 1979 by Columbia Pictures, the film’s credits end with a copyright year of 1977. Whether this means the film was made in 1977 independently and then later purchased by Columbia for distribution or produced by Columbia and then shelved for two years before its release is unknown. Whichever is the case, ON THE AIR LIVE WITH CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT is the only film discussed here that was distributed by a major studio, Columbia Pictures. And regardless of the circumstances of its production and release, it may come as no surprise that by the time a major studio released a van movie, the craze was all but over.
After accidentally playing a record on the air during his shift at a major radio station, Ziggy (Tracy Sebastian) is fired and has to find a way to keep making his van payments. While his impossibly nerdy friend Gargen (Barry Greenberg) is trying to use a C.B. radio to intrude on an FM radio signal, Ziggy grabs the “mic” and improvises some nonsense that includes the phrase “Captain Midnight” and “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.” The next day, everyone at school is buzzing about the hottest new thing on the radio: Captain Midnight. Ziggy decides to start a pirate radio station out of the back of his van with Gargen’s help and establishes a small army of assistants to collect paid song requests from the students of local high schools. The assistants round up the notes and the cash and hand them off to Captain Midnight, who drives around playing the songs and presumably saying other swear words on the radio, although we never actually hear him doing so.
A pre-Captain Midnight Ziggy goes out cruising in his van looking to pick up chicks.
As Captain Midnight grows in popularity, the FCC catches on to him and sends Agent Pierson (John Ireland) to track him down. Gargen uses his electrical wizardry to help evade Pierson, and a local legit radio DJ (Jim Ladd) sends him good vibes and encouragement through the airwaves. As Pierson closes in, though, Ziggy grows tired of the charade and plans a spectacular finale for Captain Midnight: after handing out hundreds of “CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT” t-shirts with his friends, Ziggy will parachute into the middle of Magic Mountain theme park (see also: VAN NUYS BLVD.), where Captain Midnight’s rabid fans will tear him apart. After landing, Ziggy sneaks out through the crowd, meets his girlfriend, and leaves the park. Once again, a vansploitation film ends with the lead character’s symbolic destruction of the thing that has come to define him, although in this case it seems like Ziggy will just go back to faking his report cards and taunting Fat Vicky (Claudia De Seca) and being kind of a dick to Gargen.
ON THE AIR LIVE WITH CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT is mostly a film about pirate radio, although the mechanics of how the station work and just where Ziggy is broadcasting are fuzzy at best. How could Ziggy possibly become a radio sensation after spending five seconds on a C.B. radio? Why are high school kids paying him money to play the same stuff they could hear on any other radio station? There are innumerable questions raised during the course of the film, and the only way to deal with it and remain relatively sane is to just let them all go. There is really only one van in the film, but quite a bit of the film’s action takes place inside it, including all of the “Captain Midnight” broadcasts. Early in the film there is a scene where Ziggy is out cruising what appears to be Van Nuys Blvd. in which he picks up a couple of girls and sets the van a-rockin’ while Gargen makes faces at the camera while sitting in the passenger seat. Ziggy’s van is integral to the plot, but other than adding more radio equipment, he doesn’t seem to spend much time on its upkeep or customization. While the van facilitates his transformation into Captain Midnight, Ziggy is ultimately defined by the character he becomes and not the van he drives.
Gargen tweaks Ziggy’s system to boost the pirate radio station’s signal.
Ziggy is played by Tracy Sebastian, son of co-writers/directors Beverly and Ferd Sebastian. The Sebastians had quite a run in exploitation cinema in the 70s including GATOR BAIT, and in the 1980s made ROCKTOBER BLOOD (a heavy-metal horror film) and a sequel to GATOR BAIT, GATOR BAIT II: CAJUN JUSTICE. While CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT is Tracy’s only screen credit, it appears he later adopted the pseudonym “Tray Loren” and starred in ROCKTOBER BLOOD and GATOR BAIT II as well as the Sebastians’ female wrestling film AMERICAN ANGELS: BAPTISM OF BLOOD (1989). One other particularly notable cast member of ON THE AIR LIVE WITH CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT is Barry Greenberg, who plays Ziggy’s put-upon sidekick Gargen. Greenberg plays Gargen as a cartoonish jester, mugging relentlessly for the camera and delivering some seriously insane line readings. It is not hard to imagine a world where Greenberg could have taken Eddie Deezen’s place as the go-to actor for 80’s films looking for crazy nerds. Unfortunately, ON THE AIR LIVE WITH CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT was Greenberg’s last screen appearance to date.
Recommended Additional Viewing:
While the previously discussed films make up the core of the Vansploitation cycle, there are various other tangentially related films that are well worth seeking out for the dedicated exploitation cinema enthusiast. Listed below are ten features that may not quite fit the definition of Vansploitation, but are of interest to fans of the style for various reasons. Most of these feature vans in prominent roles, even if they are not the focus of the action, while others feature familiar faces from the Vansploitation canon.
Bill Adler, Michael Parks and a red van in “Love and the Midnight Auto Supply” (1977).
DRIVE-IN (1976, directed by Rod Amateau)
A slice-of-life film about young people in a small Texas town, with a long scene in a rollerskating rink and the last half taking place at the local drive-in. The principal “villain” of the film is a guy with a van and a gang of toughs who hang out with him. No points for guessing what happens to the water bed in the back of his van when he angers his ex-girlfriend.
LOVE AND THE MIDNIGHT AUTO SUPPLY (1977, directed by James Polakof)
Michael Parks stars in this automotive take on Robin Hood. Duke (Parks) runs the Midnight Auto Supply, where his band of van-driving outlaw mechanics (including Bill Adler of VAN NUYS BLVD.) steal cars and parts from the rich and become involved in a plan to give half their take to a group of local farmers. Watch for a young Colleen Camp.
CITIZEN’S BAND (aka HANDLE WITH CARE) (1977, directed by Jonathan Demme)
An early feature by Jonathan Demme (and featuring cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth), CITIZEN’S BAND follows parallel storylines of characters whose lives are partially defined by their relationship to C.B. radio. Starring Paul Le Mat, Charles Napier, and Candy Clark, CITIZEN’S BAND does not feature any vans to speak of, but is an interesting relic of the C.B. radio craze.
MALBU BEACH (1978, directed by Robert J. Rosenthal)
Bill Adler makes an appearance as a “Vanner” in this entry from Crown International Pictures. Other familiar faces include Jim Kester (THE VAN and VAN NUYS BLVD.), Steve Oliver reprising the role of “Dugan” from THE VAN, and Tarah Stromeier (“Wanda” from VAN NUYS BLVD.) in a supporting role. Mostly this is about teens hanging out at the titular beach, but it’s worth a look if only to learn the truth about the miserable life Dugan presumably lived off-screen in THE VAN. It sort of explains an awful lot about why he’s such a horrible jackass.
CORVETTE SUMMER (1978, directed by Matthew Robbins)
Mark Hamill’s infamous follow-up to STAR WARS was this goofy road trip following high schooler Kenneth W. Dantley, Jr. (Hamill) as he tracks the stolen custom Corvette he worked on in auto shop class to Las Vegas. Annie Potts made her feature film debut as Vanessa, a young hooker with a heart of gold working out of her custom van, which features a water bed (apparently a very popular feature in custom vans).
George Barris on the C.B. in “Smokey and the Hotwire Gang” (1979).
KILLER’S DELIGHT (aka THE DARK RIDE, 1978, directed by Jeremy Hoenack)
Perhaps the closest thing there is to a “van horror” movie, director Jeremy Hoenack’s nasty thriller was inspired by serial killer Ted Bundy. Bundy’s fictional counterpart in the film drives around an unassuming yellow van, which is the stage for some scenes of unsettling violence that queasily punctuate what is otherwise a TV-movie level “true crime” story. Featuring a cameo by George “Buck” Flower, father of Verkina Flower (“Donna” in MAG WHEELS), and starring John Karlen (Dark Shadows, Harry Kümel’s DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS) as the killer.
TEXAS DETOUR (1978, directed by Howard Avedis)
There’s a van in the first few minutes of TEXAS DETOUR, but then it gets stolen, and the rest of the film is pretty much van-less until it reappears near the start of the third act to help the protagonists make a daring escape from the tiny Texas town in which they are stranded. Cameron Mitchell is a villainous ranch owner, and Priscilla Barnes plays his daughter. Director Howard Avedis (THE STEPMOTHER) brings his typical hyper-melodramatic style to the table.
SMOKEY AND THE HOTWIRE GANG (1979, directed by Anthony Cardoza)
George Barris plays a supporting role as a Vanner whose van is stolen and used in an armored car robbery in this seriously incompetent action/comedy/chase/C.B. movie directed by Anthony Cardoza. If Cardoza’s name sounds familiar, it’s most likely from his acting in such b-movie classics as Ed Wood’s NIGHT OF THE GHOULS and Coleman Francis’s THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS.
MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1980, directed by Michael Nankin and David Wechter)
Rival groups of college kids (nerds, jocks, etc.) play an overnight scavenger hunt that covers the entire city of Los Angeles, masterminded by “Game Master” Leon. David Naughton leads one group that comes to include his neglected younger brother (Michael J. Fox in his feature film debut). Stephen Furst (ANIMAL HOUSE) leads the villains out of his custom van, which features a huge computer console.
PINBALL SUMMER (aka PICK-UP SUMMER) (1981, directed by George Mihalka)
Director George Mihalka is probably best known for the slasher classic MY BLOODY VALENTINE, but his first feature film was this weird teen sex comedy. The “hero” of the film drives a van that gets a fair amount of screen time, but the focus is on the antics of small-town teenagers running wild over Summer break. There is a distinctly Canadian sense of humor at work here, giving PINBALL SUMMER a unique flavor.
* – If the name “George Barris” sounds familiar, it’s no surprise. Barris has been in the automobile customization business since the 1950s, and has designed some of the most iconic vehicles in pop culture history. He designed the “Dragula” car for THE MUNSTERS television series and created vehicles for shows as diverse as THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE GREEN HORNET and MANNIX. His best-known work, though, is undoubtedly the original Batmobile for the Adam West BATMAN television series that ran from 1966 to 1968. In addition to creating “Vandora” for SUPERVAN and designing other vans that appeared in Vansploitation films, Barris also designed the titular antagonist in the classic horror film THE CAR.
Unsurprisingly, George Barris’s work wasn’t restricted to car design. He got in front of the camera for SUPERVAN, MAG WHEELS and SMOKEY AND THE HOTWIRE GANG, as well as appearing as himself in Jack Hill’s PIT STOP (1969), Lamar (SUPERVAN) Card’s DISCO FEVER (1978), and director/stuntman H.B. Halicki’s two films following his hit GONE IN 60 SECONDS: THE JUNKMAN (1982) and DEADLINE AUTO THEFT (1983). Barris acted as producer on MAG WHEELS and DISCO FEVER, and co-produced and co-directed 1960’s JUKE BOX RACKET.
George Barris continues to work to this day in his California-based customization shop, Barris Kustom Industries. He has made appearances on various reality television series over the last several years including MONSTER GARAGE and AMERICAN PICKERS, and he often makes appearances at custom car shows around the country.
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