Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (AIP, 1959) – Director: William J. Hole, Jr. Writer: Lou Rusoff. Stars: Jody Fair, Russ Bender, Henry McCann, Martin Braddock, Elaine DuPont, Leon Tyler, Jack Ging, Nancy Anderson, Dorothy Neumann, Sanita Pelkey, Kirby Smith, Jeanne Tatum, Beverly Scott, Bill St. Johns, Paul Blaisdell, & Tommy Ivo. B&W, 65 minutes.

One wouldn’t think to look at it, but this minor obscure effort marked a major transition for its studio, American International Pictures. 

AIP had always prided itself on its ability to discern when a current trend had run its course and when a new direction was needed. Unlike the major studios, who could afford to wait until a trend developed, AIP – a partnership between James Nicholson, a former sales manager for Realart Productions, and Sam Arkoff, a Hollywood entertainment lawyer – lacked the financial wherewithal for patience. Instead, it used a network of exhibitors, especially among the drive-in crowd. Also, by monitoring customer comment cards and convening focus groups comprised of teenage moviegoers, the studio was able to determine what movie fad was on the decline and what new direction to take. This close attention to detail meant the difference between healthy profits and bankruptcy.

The studio’s lifeblood lay in the lucrative teen and young adult market, and their films were tailored specifically for that market. Films either produced or distributed by the studio included Roger Corman’s It Conquered the WorldGirls in PrisonVoodoo WomanI Was a Teenage WerewolfTeenage CavemanThe Cool and the CrazyDaddy-O, and High School Hellcats, to name a few, all produced from 1955 to1959. Like other B-studios, AIP usually started with a title pre-marketed to exhibitors for approval. Once they had the go-ahead, a script was written and a crew and cast assigned. 

Having had success the year before with Hot Rod Gang, a film celebrating hot rods, hot chicks, and hot music with John Ashley as a college student who must lead a quiet life under the guardianship of spinster aunts Abigail and Anastasia (Neumann) in order to inherit his late father’s estate. But he has a secret life: racing cars and singing in combos, and after tussles with both rival racers and the police, and the help of girlfriend Lois Cavendish (Fair), John becomes a singing star.

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was conceived as a straight sequel, but as perceived audience tastes changed, the film changed as well. Gone was Ashley’s character, as was most of the drama. Fair’s character of Lois Cavendish was promoted to the lead, and we learn that she belongs to the Zenith car club. 

After the opening credits, the film fades to a Los Angeles street where we see Lois tooling along in an open top car. A similar car suddenly turns up alongside from a side street, driven by rival club member Nita (Anderson). She challenges Lois to a race. and the girls race from streets into one of the dry river beds we often see in films set in Los Angeles. When a motorcycle policeman notices the girls and gives pursuit, Lois races away while Nita crashes into a wall. 

Back at the Zeniths’ garage, leader Stan (Braddock) introduces members Dave (McCann), Rhoda (DuPont), Bonzo (Tyler), Tommy (Ivo), Sandra (Howard), and Amelia (Pelkey) to sympathetic journalist Tom Hendry (Bender), who is researching an article on hot rodders. Impressed by Tommy’s detailed description of a car he designed, Hendry asks whether the stories of hot rodders being delinquents is true. 

Stan tells Hendry that he can help with some good press to counter the prevailing image of them as drag racing young punks who love to break the law. The Zeniths are serious car aficionados and illegal racing is the fastest way to get booted from the club.

Dave (the nerd of the group who just happens to have the hottest girlfriend in Amelia) almost causes Hendry’s head to explode with an explanation of hot rods that includes Euclidian geometry and Einstein’s Theory of Relatively (I kid you not). Stan introduces the reporter to Tommy Ivo and his award-winning car, telling Hendry that Tommy has won over 300 trophies across the country. The main attraction in this scene (although he’ll only be spotted by serious hot rodders), Tommy is “TV” Tommy Ivo, a now legendary drag racer of the late ‘50s to early ‘60s. He proudly gives Hendry a tour of his actual record-holding Buick-engined dragster, a form of early product placement.

When Lois returns to the garage, Stan introduces her to Hendry, but Lois is more interested in making herself scarce. Stan tries to get her to stay, but she alludes to some trouble with the police and insists that she has work to do on her car. Hendry comments on how unusual it is to see a girl so caught up in in all the aspects of hot rodding and Stan informs him that Lois does all her own mechanical work and won’t let anyone touch her car – or her for that matter. Dave remarks that it’s disgusting to see a woman engaged in such unfeminine work, then is hauled off by Amelia to tinker on his own car. (Remember, this is a comedy.)

Stand also tells Hendry that the Zenith Club is only a month away from attaining their charter. In order to qualify, members must take a pledge to abstain from illegal racing or they are booted out. Hendry tells Stan he would like to make the club his home base while writing his articles, but Stan says that may not be feasible; the club is so broke it can no longer pay the rent on the building and are due to be evicted. But until that happens Hendry can be an honorary member. One of the duties of an honorary member, he is then told, is to buy food for everyone, so the gang heads out to feed. 

After they leave, the motorcycle cop from the beginning of the film rides into the club’s yard. He quickly spots two legs sticking out from under a beat up car, grabs them, and hauls out a protesting Lois. Although Lois tries to feign ignorance, he demands to see her driver’s license as the scene fades out.

The Zeniths take Hendry to their hangout, a combination roadside diner, juke joint and malt shop complete with a shotgun-toting chef named Frenchie (Lewis). Several of the club members also sing in a rock and roll band, and musical numbers are sung by Rhoda, Sandra and Amelia.

While the band is playing, Lois arrives and Stan explains to Hendry how they had hoped to use the band to raise money by throwing a few dances, but the club doesn’t even have the loot to rent a place to hold them.

Nita, angry over Lois’ tactics during their race, shows up with her boyfriend Tony (Ging) and his gang. Nita tries to goad Lois into another race by reminding her what happened earlier in the day, but Stan reminds Lois of the Zenith Club’s rules about racing while giving Lois a look of disappointment. Stan tells Tony that the Zeniths will not be goaded into a fight and asks Tony to leave. Frenchie enforces the request with his shotgun. 

Later, Stan follows Lois home, and as they are kissing in Stan’s car, her father, Wesley (Smith), peers through the blinds, expressing his indignation with the scene. Alice (Tatum), his wife, shoos him away from the window.

When Lois comes inside, Dad reads the riot act about racing, telling her that her obsession with cars is unnatural for a young woman. To back up his argument, he shows her a newspaper article describing her race with Nita and her near-serious accident. Because one of his most important clients, the elderly eccentric Anastasia Abernathy, will be spending two weeks with them, he grounding Lois for those two weeks to ensure nothing goes wrong. While Lois accepts her punishment, she’s disappointed because the club was planning a bash for the next Saturday. 

Alice bullies Wesley into allowing Lois to hold the party at their house. Lois says that the bash will be a “double do” – once the party is over and the guys leave, the girls will have a slumber party. Her parents agree as the scene fades out after some further family banter. 

Anastasia soon arrives, accompanied by her parrot, Alfonso, capable of putting entire sentences together, thinking for himself, making witty ripostes to the characters and able to mimic unusual sounds.

At the party, everyone, including Anastasia and the Cavendishs, are having a good time dancing with one another. Everyone is excited because the club band finally recorded their song, “Geronimo,” which (of course) is played during the party. A close-up reveals that it’s labeled American International Pictures, marking the studio’s entry into the music business. 

Everyone’s having a good time, but it doesn’t last long because Nita, Tony and their gang crash the bash. As things predictably heat up, Lois, fearing a brawl, agrees to dance with Tony. After only a few steps, Nita jealously yanks Tony away. When Stan threatens Tony, Alfonso imitates the sound of a police siren, causing Tony and his gang to hit the skids. The party is followed by a G-rated cheesecake pajama party that Lois says is what happens "when the she-kats nap after the he-kats leave." 

Despite everything they tried, the gang finds themselves about to be evicted from their headquarters. Lois and Anastasia arrive after a comedic sequence in which the still-grounded Lois teaches Anastasia, who had never driven before, how to operate her hot rod. Anastasia, distressed at the turn of events, recalls her old family home, Dragstrip Hollow, which was abandoned when it was found to be haunted. Stan asks Anastasia if they could use it for their club headquarters assuring her that he and Hendry can rid the house of its ghosts. Anastasia agrees. 

The gang, accompanied by Anastasia, go to Dragstrip Hollow that night and despite hearing unusual shrieks and thumps, settle in. Inside, they find the usual creepy looking abandoned house, filled with cobwebs and old furniture. The lights go out soon after the group arrives and they light several candles. Hearing screams and moans they decide to explore, bumping into things and knocking stuff over. 

Dave, nervous from it all, sits in a chair that seems to swallow him. Lois sees the fireplace swivel, but no one believes her. The candles all go out and relight themselves. Hendry tells the gang there has to be a rational explanation, but no sooner does he say this than his bow site mysteriously unravels. 

Rather than leaving to return the next day, the gang decides to spend the night. A panel opens and a hand comes out and pinches Rhoda. Lois, sitting in front of the fireplace, vanishes when it swivels before returning. Again, as no one saw it, no one believes her. When the gang begins dozing off, a monster, which horror fans will recognize as the “She Creature” without the breasts, wanders in and snuggles next to Dave, who thinks it’s his girlfriend Amelia. When he touches the rough skin and looks at the monster, he does a double-take as the scene fades out. 

The next morning, a search of the house turns up nothing out of the ordinary, and Anastasia tells the gang that since they appear to have conquered the ghosts, they may have use of the house. The gang spends the day cleaning the house in order to throw a party that evening to celebrate their new club. Hendry suggests a spook-themed costume ball and Stan gets the idea to charge admission to help raise a few bucks. Dave reveals that he will unveil the car he has been working on, named for his super hot girlfriend Amelia, at the party that night. 

That night the party is in full swing, with everyone in costume. Even Tony and Nita, who crash, are allowed to join the party. The monster from the night before joins the festivities, only now he blends right in. Nita proposes to Lois that they finish their race, which they do – offscreen. When Lois returns, Stan chastises her for breaking club rules and after she promises to pay the club fine and tell her father, Stan forgives her.

Later, Stan and Hendry explore several rooms looking for the source of the eerie sounds, but come away empty. Meanwhile, Dave unveils his car, describing it as a thinking car. When Anastasia scoffs, Dave has her sit in the car and give it a spoken command. The group is impressed when the car starts upon request. 

Anastasia then, for some reason known only to the producers, asks the car if the house really is haunted. The car says yes, and after some prodding it rolls over to the fireplace and presses a button, revealing a hidden room behind it in which there is a machine for transmitting sounds and creating other such spooky effects.

Stan orders everyone to remove their costume masks and when the “She Creature” refuses, Stan and the others force him to take off his mask. Hendry recognizes the man as a former movie extra (Blaisdell) who frequently played monsters in low-budget films. The man admits that the end of his career had made him despondent and he wanted to cling to his only talent by haunting the house. After his confession, the man abruptly flees and the party resumes minutes later. However in the midst of the revelry, the very real ghost of Anastasia’s uncle, John Abernathy the First, emerges from his portrait and heads towards Anastasia. When she tells him that she always knew he was haunting the place, the ghost vanishes into the night. Alphonso the annoying bird states that the ghost won’t return, and the music and dancing resume as if nothing ever happened as the film ends with the words “The endest man.”


If it seems that I’ve spent a lot of time and words on a film that today is forgotten and obscure, rest assured that I have very good reasons for doing so. As I said before, this film marks a major transition for American International Pictures in hanging their direction from monster and JD films to the the Gothic color horrors of Roger Corman and the Beach Party films of William Asher that came to dominate the early ‘60s. AIP was not a studio that simply changed direction. Operating as it did on the opinions of both its audience and exhibitors, Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was a test case to see if the new directions the company discerned were real. The box-office returns confirmed the company’s feelings that they were going in the right direction.

While the film keeps the typical ‘50s teen B movie tropes: hipster type dialogue, guys with slicked down hair, girls with "rocket" bras, and juvenile delinquent types running around, it also seeks to branch out as a comedy be having fun with these conventions at the same time amid a few references to the Cold War. It’s as if to tell us the ‘50s are over and it’s time for a new beginning.

While the title sequence emphasizes the penny-counting style of AIP with double exposure produced ghosts floating up and down as the titles scroll by, “Ghost Train” a bouncy instrumental playing in the background tells us on the other hand that this is anything but a horror flick.

But while all this is going on, the problem with Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow is that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It begins as a straight JD/drag racing picture with Lois facing off against her adversary Nita. Then the scene shifts to the headquarters of the Zeniths with Hendry looking for an interview and we learn with this club, illegal street racing is out. It’s a club for car aficionados with the presence of the legendary Tommy Ivo, who won his many awards in legitimate drag races, to assure the gearheads in the audience that legal racing is cool. In fact, when Lois returns, she is chastised for her racing and promises club president Stan that she will never do it again. The kids are far from being juvenile delinquents; they are of the wholesome homogenized variety. The plot is almost nonexistent at times and the gang’s search for a new club headquarters tends to fade into the background for several long stretches as other plot points are pursued.

When Stan gives Hendry the speech that the Zeniths are unusual in that they have strict rules against rumbles of “chicken runs” because their priority is working on cars, it almost sounds like one of those message shorts that were shown to high school kids and made great fodder for the MST 3000 crew.

When the film shifts to Frenchie’s malt shop, where Nick Venet and the Vettes are performing “Geronimo,” the girls get on the stage to sing with the band, emphasizing the musical aspect.

When Mark sees Lois home, the film changes again into a form of domestic sitcom, with the generation gap being the source of the comedy. Dad’s most important client, Anastasia Abernathy, is going to stay with the family for two weeks and Lois’ behavior threatens to undo Dad’s carefully laid plans, so she’s grounded. 

After the gang discovers how cool Anastasia and her parrot are, the party gets underway. When Nita, Tony and the gang crash the doings, Alfonso mimics a police siren and chases them away. (Shades of Lou Costello in the 1941 comedy Hold That Ghost, who does the same thing to sachet off the bad guys.)

When Anastasia offers the use of Dragstrip Hollow to the Zeniths, the film changes once again into a horror spoof as the house is loaded with scary sounds, a swiveling fireplace, and a monster haunting the premisses. At the party, held to emphasize the music, Nita, Tony, and the gang show up. Lois and Nita agree to settle their differences in one last race, which, tellingly, is held off-screen. Everyone buries the hatchet and we’re all friends again.

Dave unveils his new car, named for his girlfriend Anita, which also seems to be capable of intelligent thought a la KITT, the incredible supercar loaded with artificial intelligence and driven by crimefighter David Hasselhoff in the ‘80s TV actioner, Knight Rider. When prompted, the car reveals the creature’s hiding place behind the swiveling fireplace. 

When the time for everybody to unmask, all comply except the creature. As Shadow says in his excellent take on the film (bmovegraveyard.com), the unmasking of the creature as someone who has turned to haunting the house after he was replaced by his studio in his role of portraying monsters in horror movies is “a true Scooby-Doo moment.” Why someone would choose to haunt a house where no one went until the kids showed up defies logic, but at this point it’s too late for logic. 

And just as we are led to believed that the “monster” haunting has been solved, the ghost of John Abernathy the First appears, as if to finally give the film its ghostly creds. “Charge,” a fast-tempo tune by then AIP music director Jimmie Madden fills the soundtrack as the final title, “The Endest Man,” flashes on the screen. 

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow is the clear stylistic forerunner for the Beach Party series. Lou Rusoff, who wrote the film (he was the brother-in-law of San Arkoff), created. The kids in the film are not juvenile delinquents, but wholesome and misunderstood. It’s their rivals who are the juvenile delinquents. This same plot point would continue with Frankie, Annette and their friends supplying the wholesomeness, and Eric Von Zipper and his followers supplying the delinquency. 

By the time we get to the Beach Party series, hot rods are deemphasized: they are no longer for racing, but for carrying surfboards, people, and to be seen and admired. Both films feature attractive, energetic and rebellious (although in a good way) kids whose lives revolve around an activity – in Ghost  it’s hot cars; in Beach Party films it’s surfing. Both also have lots of good-looking girls in fetching attire, the usual adult opposition, and scripts that concentrate on comedy. Most importantly, the musical interludes and dancing are a direct feature of the storyline instead of being stand alone breaks in the continuity. In the climatic costume party scene, the camerawork focuses on extended close-ups of wildly-dancing partygoers emphasizing on the dancing and the music. No character dialogue is heard, which would also occur later with Frankie and Annette leading the gang in the dance. 

The Beach Party series, like Ghost, is notable for its lack of any sort of teen angst; the emphasis is instead on slapstick. In this, Ghost seems like a dry run, as if the new elements are there to be tested. Both takes their time moving the plot along while building their characters. Thus we have the nerd (in Ghost it’s Dave; in Beach Party various adults), the clown (Bonzo in Ghost, Deadhead in Beach Party), the leader (Stan/Frankie), the chief babe (Lois/Dee-Dee), and at least one sympathetic adult who wants to help the teens.

The spoof of the horror elements seems to be meant as a segue from the science-fiction based horrors to the later Gothic horror based Poe series from Roger Corman. 

But perhaps the best trick of both was convincing us that actors in their twenties, and some even in their thirties, are teenagers.

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was released on a double-bill with The Diary of a High School Bride, about a 17-year-old high school senior who must justify her marriage to a 24-year old law student to both her parents and her rather unbalanced ex-boyfriend.

Notable Dialogue

(Lois tells her parents about the club’s upcoming party.)

Lois: “But the club has a big bash coming up.”
Mr. Cavendish: “A bash? That sounds positively indecent.”

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