Appellate Judge Tom Becker went to Cult Camp one summer. There he met Judge Dylan Charles and Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger. To this day, they won't show him the secret handshake.
"Travel is so broadening."—Sinclair Lewis
Once upon a time, gas was so cheap that driving long distances was considered an inexpensive option. Once upon a time, you could board a plane with as much bottled water or hair gel as you wanted. Once upon a time, airline food was so bad that it could actually create a hazardous condition.
OK, some things never change.
Cult Camp Classics 3: Terrorized Travelers takes us back to those halcyon days, when travel was a simple, relaxing adventure—unless you encountered the Hot Rods to Hell, were Skyjacked, or faced Zero Hour!
Facts of the Case
A pregnant woman refuses an offer of a glass of milk and instead orders a Bloody Mary. A young soldier relaxes and lights up a cigarette. Yep, it's 1972, and we're flying first class on Global Airways Flight 502 to Minneapolis. But when a young woman comes out of the bathroom ashen-faced, it's not because she ordered the fish. There's a message on the bathroom mirror, scrawled in red lipstick! Is it a naughty limerick? Is it the pilot's phone number? Is Elizabeth Taylor reprising a moment from Butterfield 8? No, the plane is being Skyjacked! The note demands that the flight be rerouted to Anchorage, or this Max Factoring maniac will blow up the plane. If it's Tuesday, this must be Armageddon! Lucky for everyone except the 'jacker, Captain Henry "Hank" O'Hara is flying this crate. This situation calls for a cool head, and Cap'n Hank is the coolest head of all—cryogenically cool.
Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews, The Best Years of Our Lives) was a Canadian fighter pilot during WWII who made a mistake—a mistake that cost six men in his squadron their lives. His own life has been a shambles ever since. Just when things start looking up, his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell, A Letter to Three Wives), takes their son and leaves. He follows her to the airport, boards the plane she's on, and tries to work it out. But horror happens in mid-air: Most of the passengers and both pilots chose the tasty-sounding halibut from the dinner menu. Only it was tainted, and now people are dropping like flies! With the captain upchucking, no one is flying the plane! Only one person on board has ever flown before—and he ate the lamb. But can Ted conquer the demons from his past so these 38 people can have a future? If not, they'll all be going to hell at Zero Hour!
Hot Rods to Hell
After a Christmas car crash leaves him with a bad back and worse dreams, Tom Phillips (Andrews again) packs up his picture-perfect family and moves them across the country to California, where he has purchased a hotel in the middle of the desert. Dad's still a little hinky behind the wheel, so Mom (Jeanne Crain, Pinky) does the driving, and as they make their way through the dry lands, they get buzzed by a couple of cool dudes in a bitchin' 'Vette with a bitchy chick, and they're looking for kicks. Who are these highway hooligans in their Hush Puppies and penny loafers? Well, they're rotten teenagers Duke and Ernie, and they're driving their Hot Rods to Hell. Once Duke gets a load of the Phillips' babelicious daughter, he wants to take the chains off her snow tires. These boys "own" this here stretch of sand and highway, and they can make life pretty tough for the innkeeper. Will Dad crack up or crack down?
I really don't ask much from my disaster movies: some colorful characters, a little ham-ola acting, easy-to-follow back stories, and the requisite non-finite disaster, something where some will live and some will not. I care little about the science of the disaster. For instance, if a small plane crashes into a big one, causing a hole in the roof of the cockpit that sucks the co-pilot out into the wild blue yonder, I know that if a flight attendant ventures into that cockpit, she will not be able to chat on the radio with the big hole over her head and the wind mussing her hair. But since it's a disaster movie, I accept this ridiculous premise in Airport '75, just as I accept 400-pound Shelley Winters as a former Olympic diver in The Poseidon Adventure or 59-year-old Lorne Greene as the father of 52-year-old Ava Gardner in Earthquake.
The premise of Skyjacked is easy to accept. Airplane hijacking was once common enough that it was treated as a joke. A lot's changed since '72. Skyjacked is best viewed as a period piece.
That the hijacker scrawls warnings in lipstick should tip you off that this is not a serious movie. Only, Skyjacked is not a fun movie, either. We get a bunch of "name" actors (though your knowledge of trivia will determine what sort of "names") who are given a few seconds to establish a stereotype and then sit around waiting for the beverage cart. It's all Heston dealing with the skyjacking—which he does…very…methodically. We learn the identity of the hijacker in the first 30 minutes, so there's no mystery. We never really understand the hijacker's motivations, but we're thankful for the oasis of crazy in this desert of the sedate. Honestly, this is the quietest airplane I've ever seen. When they discover that there's a bomb on board and they're heading for Alaska, they barely grumble. They're like mimes with suntans. The script tells us a lot about flight patterns, altitude readings, fuel consumption, and other things that might be thrilling to an air traffic controller, but I just kept wishing that Karen Black would muscle her way into the cockpit, grab the controls, and get that rig to "Climb, baby, climb!"
Zero Hour! comes with a built-in camp pedigree: It's the basis for the spoof Airplane!. Actually, Airplane! is a virtual remake, taking the plot and large chunks of dialogue whole cloth, and it is impossible to watch Zero Hour! without thinking of the later, more famous film.
In its own right, Zero Hour! is a pretty fun little movie. It's based on a teleplay by Arthur Hailey, whose book Airport was made into the film that is credited with starting the all-star disaster genre. Like Airport (and unlike Skyjacked), the passengers in Zero Hour! are an interesting lot who are not afraid to melt down when the going gets tough. Dana Andrews is his usual stalwart self, looking no more or less pained when he realizes he must fly the plane to safety as he did when deciding between the fish and the lamb for dinner. You know how it's going to turn out (Do you really think little Joey's going to end up in the drink?), so enjoy the ride.
Andrews turns up again in Hot Rods to Hell, along with Jeanne Crain, who played the pokerfaced middle-aged wife in Skyjacked. In HR2H, she emotes so much she seems ready to spontaneously combust. At least she changes her facial expressions, which is more than you can say for Mr. Andrews. Wearing so much make-up you expect him to start lip-syncing show tunes, his face is a constant grimace. When called on to show any other emotion—anger, fear, disappointment—he grimaces harder.
When the family is gunning the Plymouth to escape the hot-rodding hoods, Hot Rods To Hell is a cool rock movie (with music by Mickey Rooney Jr.!). The problem is that every event is preceded or followed by a long discussion about the event, sometimes both. We get so much exposition, moralizing, recapping, and generational angst ("These kids have nowhere to go, but they want to get there at 150 miles an hour!") that we're rooting for the demon seeds to take out the gabby grownups. In truth, the kids are more like puppies chasing a car than Straw Dogs, but it's a fun trip.
The technical work on these discs is unimpressive. Hot Rods To Hell looks pretty good, the other two a bit speckly, and the audio is workable. There are no extras on Skyjacked and just a trailer on each of the others.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can understand Zero Hour! and Hot Rods to Hell, but what definition of camp are they using at Warner that fits the dull, pedestrian Skyjacked? Was there nothing else that they could shoehorn into their "terrorized travelers" theme? Did they make no films during the dark days of roller disco? I'd accept skates as a form of transportation, and there is certainly terror associated with disco. If they'd been really serious, maybe they could have gotten their hands on the holy grail of cult camp classics, 1973's Lost Horizon.
I think there's a market out there for camp, and clearly Warner does also, which is why they've released four volumes of this series. I'd welcome more if they start putting some thought into the selections and a little more work on the discs. I understand that the two sets I did not see, Volumes 1 and 4, had good transfers and commentary tracks. Hopefully, Warner will start doing that across the board.
Dana Andrews has suffered enough. Both Zero Hour! and Hot Rods to Hell are free to go. Flight 502, on the other handed, is grounded.
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Scales of Justice, Zero Hour!
Perp Profile, Zero Hour!
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Zero Hour!
Scales of Justice, Hot Rods To Hell
Perp Profile, Hot Rods To Hell
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Hot Rods To Hell
Scales of Justice, Skyjacked
Perp Profile, Skyjacked
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Skyjacked
• IMDb: Hot Rods to Hell
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.