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 re-watch 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Originally made for TV but released in theaters, the camp film stars veteran Hollywood stars Jeanne Crain as Peg Phillips, and Dana Andrews as Tom Phillips.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 the 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 (Laurie Mock), and Jamie (Jeffrey Byron), as they move from their New England home to run a motel in California after Tom is in a serious wreck. The story 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 young people drag racing a modified 1958 Chevrolet Corvette. “ Run them off the road, Duke. Run them off the road,” shouts the teenage girl Gloria (Mimsy Farmer), perched on the back of the car as they race. The teens–children of local, wealthy farmers who don’t care what their kids do–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 Gloria, Duke (Paul Bertoya) and Ernie (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 an adjacent 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 family decides 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, 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 them. “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 overreacting 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 ‘50s 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 ‘40s and ‘50s and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Pinky (1949), while Andrews previously starred in such top-notch films as the noir thriller Laura (1944) and the Oscar-winning post-WWII 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.
Comet Over Hollywood, named for the 1938 Kay Francis film Comet Over Broadway, offers anything from Hollywood beauty tips to rants about Katherine Hepburn. Jessica Pickens is a journalism student at Winthrop University who is interested in silent films to anything made before 1964. She writes for Winthrop’s student newspaper, The Johnsonian, and the Shelby Star in Shelby North Carolina. Visit her Facebook page.