Dr. Strangefilm Case #021: Gas-s-s-s

Gas! or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save ItAfter dealing with such a serious case of ’60s celluloid psychedelia as last week’s Wild in the Streets, your humble doctor must confess that I did not intend to go down those smoke-filled corridors again for a while. Two things, however, convinced me to put on my tie-dyed scrubs and step right back into the operating room. First, Nathanael Hood announced that, over the next three days, his entertaining Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear blog will be sponsoring a Roger Corman Blogathon (click here for a list of participating sites and films), saluting the career of the writer/director/producer/B-movie icon/Academy Award recipent. I could hardly call myself a connoisseur of off-the-wall cinema if I didn’t take the opportunity to offer up my own small contribution and pay tribute to the man behind such drive-in favorites as A Bucket of Blood, The Little Shop of HorrorsX! The Man with X-Ray Eyes and many others. And second, my DVD copy of Wild in the Streets just happened to be a double feature, with the flip side being none other than Corman’s 1970 end-of-the-world sci-fi/comedy Gas-s-s-s.

It’s a pairing that works well on a number of levels, because both of these American-International Pictures releases were made with the Vietnam War-era youth market in mind and looked at life in a world where the under-30 generation is in charge. Pop star-turned-President of the United States Christopher Jones and his followers, of course, use demonstrations, mass media and an LSD-laced water supply to take over Washington in Wild in the Streets. The youngsters of Gas-s-s-s, on the other hand, suddenly find themselves in power after an experimental nerve gas that causes fatal neural breakdowns in anyone over 25 is accidentally released into the atmosphere over Alaska and makes its way around the globe (the preceding comes courtesy of an animated pre-credits sequence).

The movie’s live action picks up in a devastated Dallas, Texas: specifically, the hallowed halls of Southern Methodist University. Crossbow-carrying troublemaker Coel (Robert Corff) evades college cops by disguising himself as a priest and takes refuge in a confessional (featuring copies of Playboy and The Wall Street Journal and a poster for The Singing Nun), where he meets ex-science assistant/women’s studies student Cilla (Elaine Giftos). The pair aren’t thrilled with how the stoners, squares, radicals and law-and-order types are dividing the campus into their own little fiefdoms, so they set out in a pink-and-white Ford Edsel, past Dealey Plaza, to find their own post-apocalyptic Shangri-La. After losing their wheels to some horse-riding desperadoes led, appropriately, by Billy the Kid (scripter George Armitage, later to pen such films as Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank), Corff and Giftos hook up with a quartet of  fellow misfits–played by Adrian Balboa, Brewster McCloud, Chicken George and Shirley Feeney…I mean, Talia Shire (billed as Tally Coppola), Bud Cort, Ben Vereen and Cindy Williams, respectively–holed up in an abandoned record store. Winning the Edsel back in a “gunfight” with the car rustlers, where both sides pretend to shoot guns while yelling the names of screen cowboys, the sextet of friends decides to head for the “promised land” of New Mexico, where an old pueblo is rumored to be home to a peaceful commune.

Before they can get there, however, there’s a pit stop at a drive-in-turned-acid-fueled love-in where Country Joe and The Fish (who were a cheaper alternative to the band Corman first wanted, The Grateful Dead) are the musical entertainment in-between a twin bill of The Sound of Music and Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World; a showdown in a town run by the Warriors, a squad of football-playing jocks whose motto is “rape, pillage, loot”; a chase on golf carts along a course where some Hell’s Angels types are the new upper class; and several encounters with a top-hatted, black-clad biker named Edgar Allan, accompanied by the fair and radiant Lenore and a stately raven. In spite of these and other obstacles, the group (minus Shire, who blew up while eating leftover Army rations, and the pregnant Williams, who didn’t want to be parted from a vintage jukebox) eventually makes it to the commune and settles in to help create a new community.

The arrival of the Warriors, who threaten to ransack the pueblo, leads to a debate on the use of violence…and should lead, one would think, to some kind of concluding statement about the new society the young people have built versus the old one they came from. The filmmakers, though, either ran out of steam or got too close to whatever the cast was smoking, because instead we get Corff calling on a sign from above, at which point (badly animated) lightning hits the ground, everyone makes nice, and up from the hole where the lightning struck pops all the characters from earlier in the movie. And then, to double down on the “toss anything in and we”ll call it surrealism” spirit, a mod-painted truck that had been tailing the Edsel since Dallas rolls in, and from out of its back emerge figures wearing masks of Lincoln, Gandhi, JFK, Che Guevara, Martin Luther King and Alfred E. Neuman (!). Edgar Allan and his lady pull up on their bike, and when Lenore asks “Aren’t they all going to rape, cheat, steal, lie, fight and kill, Edgar?,” the raven replies…well, you can probably guess.

For all its loosey-goosey, meandering nonsense, it’s hard not to appreciate Gas-s-s-s (also known as Gas!: Or It Became Necesssary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It) as a satirical salute to the late ’60s zeitgeist that Hollywood was just beginning to try to cash in on, usually with less-than-successful results (see Head, Skidoo and Zabriskie Point;  the indie-made Easy Rider doesn’t count). Armitage’s script, which apparently was written on the fly as shooting progressed, is packed to the gills with send-ups of establishment and counterculture slogans and offers some less-than-approving takes on nearly every aspect of American life, from fascistic football teams to class-conscious bikers. Lead couple Corff (who retired from acting in the mid-’80s and became a top voice/dialect coach) and Giftos (perhaps best-known as the wife of sheep-enamored doctor Gene Wilder in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*) are an appealing pair of free spirits. Along with then-unknown supporting players Vereen, Williams, Shire and Cort, they all seem to be having a good time with their less-than-fully-fleshed-out characters.

That the movie’s ending wound up as unfocused and slapadash as it is Corman blamed on his own work schedule. After filming was finished, Roger had to travel to Europe to direct the World War I aerial saga Von Richtofen and Brown. “I wasn’t around for the movie’s post-production,” he said, adding that “AIP, seeing my cut of the movie, got nervous and cut the film to shreds.”  Studio co-head James Nicholson, it seems, particulary wasn’t happy with the use of God as an on-screen character (“I gave him all the best lines,” said Corman) and relegated the Almighty to some voiceover lines from actor Lennie Weinrib.

It’s also interesting to note that, due in part to Corman’s unhappiness with the finished product, Gas-s-s-s served as the filmmaker’s artistic swan song to American-International (he would found his own New World company later in 1970), particularly since the movie can be looked at as a mini-retrospective of Roger’s tenure with the studio. There are aspects of his Eisenhower-era post-Doomsday tales Day The World Ended, Teenage Caveman (with Robert Vaughn in the title role) and The Last Woman on Earth; the 1966 biker actioner The Wild Angels; and the LSD-driven dementia of 1967′s The Trip, for which Corman actually dropped acid to experience its effects. And it’s all watched over by the cycle-riding Edgar Allan–who, of course, brings to mind the early ’60s horror romps based on Poe’s writings that the director made with frequent star Vincent Price. After this film, however, the names of Roger Corman and Edgar Allan Poe would be linked on the big screen….

…nevermore.

  • Nathanael Hood

    Hey! For the record…I liked “Head”….

    Kinda…..

    Well, anyway…moving on…..

    Marvelous review! Has anyone ever told you that you write with an infectious enthusiasm that makes reading your work a joy? It’s true! You really seem to know your stuff!

    One thing that I appreciate you mentioning is how Corman always seemed to have a layer of social commentary in his films. Well…social commentary in the sense that his films worked on multiple layers and had an uncanny ability to draw cynical parallels to real life. This was particularly evident during his monster mash days in the 50s. Who can forget the over-the-top speech at the end of “It Conquered the World?”

    As for the “social commentary” in this film…I can’t say. It may be genuine…or it may be Roger Corman being…well…Roger Corman. Either way it makes for one hell of a trip!

    I want to personally thank you for participating in my blogathon! I’m glad that even though you were worried about entering late, you decided to throw your hat in anyway. This blogathon is all the more richer for your participation. Thank you!

    And don’t forget to vote for the Readers’ Choice Award on Monday! Also, check out the top right of my blog to vote for the topic of our next Forgotten Classics blogathon!

  • Page

    Gary,
    This film is appropriately titled as you would need a large dose of nitrous oxide to find it entertaining.

    I love Corman’s sense of humor but on this film I thought he missed the mark in every way possible. Of course it doesn’t take away from your well thought out review that stands out when the film fell flat.

    Perhaps I didn’t get into it as much as others because I was too young during the 70′s to have gotten all of the social oriented humor or to be fair it could be because I don’t care for Vereen, Williams or Shire.

    Regardless of my like or dislike of the film I really enjoyed your review.
    Nicely done!
    Page

  • Hank Zangara

    Hollywood or not, “Head” wins the prize for most surreal casting ever: The Monkees, Phil Spector, Teri Garr, Sonny Liston, Jack Nicholson, Victor Mature, Toni Basil, Dennis Hopper, Annette Funicello, and Frank Zappa! Far out, man …

  • Stacia

    I liked Head too! But I also like Skidoo, so there is that.

    Many years ago I tried to watch Gas-s-s-s but could not get into it, despite being a big Ben Vereen fan. It felt like it was directed by two people, one who wanted to make social satire, the other who wanted to make a drive-in movie that kids could make out to. It’s probably one I should watch again now that I’m older. (I’d say now that I’m more mature, but I am not.)

  • Nathanael Hood

    Hey Gary!

    Becky wanted to leave a comment for you…but for some reason she couldn’t.

    So I posted her comment in the comment section over at my blog under the entry: Blogathon Day #2.

  • WB Kelso

    Strange, strange movie. [Spoiler] In spite of that actual gonzo ending, I think Corman missed a perfect piece of profundity if he had ended this flick when they found the Oracle and left us with There is no answer, keep searching.

  • Susan H

    Weird, but when I returned to the SF Bay Area after wkg in HW, I got a job at Fantasy Studios (after wkg on a production), and found he had housed in the bldg in Berkeley, CA a lot of “indy” script writers, etc. and one WAS “COUNTRY JOE”! I had to go through his office whenever looking up past files from ????(This was aside from the Fantasy Recording Studio/s, Publishing & Licensing Co’s, Movies – Amadeus, Cuckoo’s Nest,etc.)
    OFf the wall comment – but if you look at the “Pal Joey” comment I made, it will make more swense!
    ~S