While he still can't figure out how race cars and the risqué fit together, Judge Bill Gibron thoroughly enjoyed these prime examples of mid-'60s grindhouse gearshifting.
Scott Clayton comes from a long line of gear heads. His dad, who looks about 20 years younger than his aged "son," has been the mechanic for stock car champion Fred Lorenzen for as long as the movie remembers and this ornery offspring keeps wondering when it will be his turn behind the big wheel. Scott feels stifled by everyone on the circuit. They all talk trash about his paying dues and learning to race properly, and our brash boy wonder finds that stance patently offensive. So when a competing car owner, the fairly fetching Vanessa Hamilton, tries to lure Lorenzen and crew over to her team, Scott sees a way in. He agrees to help entice the pair into her grateful garage. What he doesn't know, however, is that Hamilton is working for an effete mobster, a man known as Pinkerton Bentley with many stubby fingers in several succulent pies. Our portly heavy woos Scott with several slutty gals and it's not long before the wannabe clutch-popper is biologically blasting off. As the big race looms, our hopeless hero is given a mandate—get Lorenzen on Vanessa's side or face the lethal consequences. Still, this spoiled sports cars spud can only think of himself. Not only is he one of the few, the proud, the Speed Lovers, but he's created a deadly web of murderous intrigue that has everyone in harm's way. What a guy.
In another bit of pre-NASCAR nonsense, one-time friends and racing partners Ticker Welsh and Mickey Arnold are now bitter bumpkin rivals. After a horrible accident leaves Mickey in a coma and Ticker's fiancé deader than a cracked manifold, the driving duo splinters and as one lies lost to the weekend warrior world, the other starts planning a painful revenge. Ticker's seething sense of retribution has him all messed up inside and such broad brooding can only lead to bad, mean, mad thoughts. When Mickey finally recovers, Ticker gets a brilliant idea—he will kill his former friend, making it look like "an accident" while they race. This means that the tripwire Welsh will have to find another racket to drive for. In the meanwhile, Mickey's wife wants nothing to do with his return to the living…or the track. She's sore from the adulterous innuendo revolving around the accident and can't imagine that her man is safe, especially with a livid ex-partner plotting to plant him. Everyone hopes that new gal pal Karen Cassidy will keep Ticker from staying "ticked" off, but it seems readily apparent that there will be some substantial Thunder in Dixie once the Big 400 is run.
As far as famous exploitation entities go, William F. McGaha (whose last name sounds like the noise Amanda Byrnes makes during her Nickelodeon sketch comedy series) has a rather notorious cinematic canon. With only three films to his credit, he managed to make one trippy racetrack roundelay, a typical sex comedy, and a movie about the second coming of Jesus Christ. Never truly content to stay behind the camera, McGaha also acts, often taking the starring role in his personalized productions. In the God-gone-gonzo message movie, J.C., McGaha is a mad messiah who rejects his omnipresent pappy and joins a biker gang. He then drops acid and heads off into the wilderness to fight the power. Yet as odd as that sounds, it cannot prepare you for this awkward auteur's work in Speed Lovers. Taking on the central role as the world's oldest youngster, McGaha wants us to believe that he is a fresh-faced twentysomething, sick of college and his military service, and ready to roll on the stock car circuit. As a performer, this multi-threat moviemaker has one juvenile trait down pat—he is an excellent complainer. Indeed, a good subtitle for this film would be The Days of Whine and Roadsters. Another aspect of adolescent antics that McGaha gets right is his character's complete inability to dance with style or grace. Since Speed Lovers is filled with lots of artificial rock 'n' roll, there are plenty of chances for our lugubrious lead to stomp around like a poet on payday, his body herking and jerking like he's infested with a wicked itch.
The other "actors" don't fare any better. Instead of going with pros, McGaha calls up real-life racer Fred Lorenzen and gives him an overheated sex life and an underheated personality to boot. Lorenzen is actually pretty good, giving decent line readings to dialogue that dipsticks would find foolish. The rest of the cast realizes how preposterous this all is, and plays their parts with tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. If there is one single saving grace for this otherwise weird waste of time, it's the race footage. Skipping the usual boredom of endless crash-free laps, Speed Lovers argues that most speedway titles are won by a simple process of elimination. As Lorenzen rounds the track, every other driver wipes out in more and more spectacular ways. Fred doesn't win because he's the fastest or the bravest. No, he takes the day because his car didn't crash and burn like all the others. Sadly, most of McGaha's intentions can be seen strewn along the infield when it comes to this vanity project.
When viewed in light of the dour, dark noir notions of Thunder in Dixie, however, Speed Lovers looks like a pert pop-art poem. For everything that is goofy and dumb in the first feature, there is an overpowering serious streak here. Designed more like the sinister mysteries of the great noir era, this black-and-white descent into the human heart of darkness is a monumental melodrama with every performance peaked for maximum maudlin RPM. Of primary note is lead lummox Mike Bradford, who really lays on the Method madness. You become dead convinced that he is hopelessly homicidal, and that creates a sense of suspense with almost every move he makes. On the other side of the storyline is genial and chipper Harry Millard. A frequent face in early '60s television, he has the leading-man looks that helped support Ticker's inferred ire. Indeed, you can see how his Mickey Arnold persona perplexes his wounded wife Lili. Judy Lewis plays the role so perfectly, she seems moments away from imploding, adrift in a sea of conflicting emotions and underwritten motives. Naturally, all this overwrought umbrage feeds into the big finale and, just like the mighty McGaha before him, director William T. Naud knows that race fans want to see wrecks and plenty of them. While not quite as impressive in monochrome as they are in color, the frequently flying and flipping cars make for an interesting last act. Thunder in Dixie plays like a tragedy tempered by a bunch of good ol' boys trying to soup up their gear ratios. All emotive excesses aside, this sour Southern Gothic will definitely cap your cinematic sparkplugs.
Something Weird Video sure unearths some doozies when they want to. Speed Lovers and Thunder in Dixie are both presented in near-pristine 1.33:1 full-screen transfers that really show off both films' divergent aspects. The Kodachrome cacophony of Lovers is complimented and offset by the dark, disturbing monochrome of Dixie and, aside from a few scratches here and there, both movies look amazing. The images are so clear that they give away the less-professional stock car footage every time it shows up onscreen. On the sound side, it's worth noting that the Dolby Digital Mono makes the revving engines and screeching tires that much more spine-tingling, while the dialogue is easily decipherable, even in the middle of an action-packed sequence.
As for bonus features, SWV does it's usual bang-up job, delivering a collection of trailers and a selection of archival short subjects that make the seemingly fleeting racing-film craze appear that much more substantial. Of the collection of entertaining ads, Racers from Hell and Road of Death really stand out. In addition, we get a glimpse of how the Barbara Stanwyck/Clark Cable speed sudser To Please a Lady became Red Hot Wheels. As for the mini-movies, we are treated to a trio of timeless turds. A couple of precocious brats learn that chatting automobiles never shut up in the educational outing "The Talking Car." Aetna strives to get drivers to prepare for unseen conflicts in the Drivavision safety short "Split Second Decisions." Finally, three barely-dressed babes break down on the side of the road and doff much of their garments to make the necessary repairs in "Hot Rod Girls."
In fact, no matter how you categorize these bizarre bits of piston-powered preposterousness, there is a lot to enjoy in Speed Lovers and Thunder in Dixie. After all, how can millions of Confederate flag-waving auto aficionados be wrong? If the South does rise again, it will be with dozens of stock cars leading the way. If we wonder how we became a NASCAR nation, this DVD will be the crazed cautionary tale that showed us where it started. Let's hope we pay heed to its four-horsepower-of-the-apocalypse warning signs before it's too late.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Something Weird Video
• Classroom Safety Short "The Talking Car"
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