Rural Follies

Titles Reviewed: Eat My Dust! (1976), Gator Bait (1974), The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976), Jackson County Jail (1976)

Eat My Dust!

(USA, 1976) DIR-SCR: Charles B. Griffith. PROD: Roger Corman. CAST: Ron Howard, Christopher Norris, Dave Madden, Clint Howard, Rance Howard, Paul Bartel, Corbin Bernsen.

This slight but enjoyable good old boy yarn became one of Roger Corman’s biggest hits for New World Pictures: he attributes the combination of action and comedy for its success. Much to Corman’s delight and surprise, “Happy Days” star Ron Howard (his first choice for the lead) agreed to appear in this movie, despite that it was for a fee much less than his usual salary. Perhaps Howard knew of Roger Corman’s tradition in giving a big break to up-and-coming directors (from Coppola to Scorsese), and secretly agreed to making this movie in the hope that he would be able to start his directing career under Corman’s banner- and he did, with Grand Theft Auto in 1977.

Howard plays the amiable dimwit Hoover, who swipes a race car from stock car superstar Bubba Jones (Dave Madden from TV's The Partridge Family and Alice!) in order to impress good time gal Darlene (Christopher Norris, later to appear in TV's Trapper John). By breaking the speed limit and causing mass destruction in their wake, the redneck police are soon on their tails. The county sheriff also happens to be Hoover’s dad! No allowance for a few weeks I guess…

There isn’t a whole lot to say about this one… just one cartoonish chase scene after another. Considering that a restaurant gets demolished, and cars constantly pile on one another (second unit work by Barbara Peeters!), it is a miracle that no character gets killed in this amiable mayhem. Surprisingly, once it is all over, Hoover isn’t really punished for his acts. Like Rock ’N' Roll High School, the world is a big playground, and adults are powerless to stop or discipline the youngsters. Instead there is an interesting segment where Bubba just lets Hoover drive around the racetrack incessantly, while the surrogate father figure looks on, and David Grisman’s acoustic score plucks merrily on the soundtrack.

The movie isn’t that funny, considering Griffith’s earlier work as a screenwriter for such gems as Little Shop Of Horrors, but most of the fun comes from the in-jokes that Griffith has thrown in. A restaurant with a name of “Bucket o Blood”, and a silhouetted figure in the jail uttering: “Feed Me!” are among the quirks woven into the action. Like Grand Theft Auto, this too is a Ron Howard family affair, as parts are given to father Rance, and brother Clint.

Gator Bait

(USA, 1974) DIR-PROD: Beverly and Ferd Sebastian. SCR: Beverly Sebastian. CAST: Claudia Jennings, Douglas Dirkson, Bill Thurman, Clyde Ventura, Janit Baldwin.

This rural revenge trash isn't nearly as vile as its reputation suggests, but it still is rather by-the-numbers despite an interesting role for its star, Claudia Jennings. She plays Desiree Thibodeau (cool name!), a backwoods gal who seeks revenge on another hillbilly family that murders her sister after wrongly believing she was responsible for the death of their kinfolk. The most novel this film gets is early on, when we see one hillbilly fiercely groping a country gal who doesn't seem to mind, until Pa comes out and says "That's your sister"! And for Ms. Jennings, this is perhaps her most unusual role, and one that doesn't exploit her sexuality. Instead, her primitive character blankly pursues the villains through the bayou, luring them to their certain doom, as she knows every inch of the swamp like the back of her hand.

The last part of that phrase, by the way, is actually a line of dialogue uttered by the patriarchal Bracken character (Dirkson), who is dogging her vengeance along with his two dimwitted sons and a couple of corrupt lawmen. Similar redneck cliches abound: the lawmen are named Billy Boy and (yep, you guessed it) Joe Bob. Despite that this mini epic is surprisingly well made, at the core, it's still as generic as they come. The chase is really not suspenseful, as we don't care about any of the characters. Still, this minor trash is noteworthy for Jennings' coldest, most dispassionate role, and the casting of Bill Thurman (seen in southern-fried films of Larry Buchanan and S.F. Brownrigg) as the sheriff. Beverly and Ferd Sebastian, who produced such agreeable drive-in fare as The Single Girls and On The Air With Captain Midnight, followed this film up with a belated sequel, 1988's Gator Bait II: Cajun Justice.

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase

(USA, 1976) DIR: Michael Pressman. SCR: "David Kirkpatrick" (aka- Peter Macgregor-Smith). STY: Mark Rosin. PROD: David Irving. CAST: Claudia Jennings, Tara Tara Strohmeier, Jocelyn Jones, Johnny Crawford.

Any contemporary viewers who want to understand the appeal of the late Claudia Jennings, former Playmate of the Year (1970), who would spend her remaining nine years in drive-in fare, need look no further than this terrific southern-fried crooks-on-the-lam romp. As Candy Morgan, the actress plays her archetypal role of a young woman who is aggressive both in life and love. Having just escaped from prison, Candy performs a unique bank robbery by holding a stick of dynamite, and then uses the cash to provide for her family before she skips town. Meanwhile, bank teller Ellie Jo Turner (Jocelyn Jones) gets fired from her job just before the robbery, and gladly helps Candy collect the money. Guess who picks Ellie Jo up when she's hitching a ride? Small town! Anyway, Ellie Jo convinces Candy that they'd have a good thing going as a duo robbing on the road, and their crime spree with sticks of dynamite begins. Later, in a supermarket holdup they kidnap a customer named Slim (Johnny Crawford, the kid from TV's The Rifleman all grown up), who's hardly an unwilling hostage.

This breezy fare is a solid effort from Roger Corman's New World Pictures, which sums up the drive-in movie experience of the mid-1970s. In addition to the healthy doses of action and sex, there's a freewheeling sense of hedonism and iconoclasm. But it's also great fun to watch because it doesn't take itself too seriously, with amusing plot twists and a jaunty clarinet score.

Still, it's no wonder that Claudia Jennings fans love this movie. Clad in unbuttoned shirts tied at the waist (when clothed at all, that is), this stunning honey-haired actress shows her equal adeptness at action and comedy, plus her love scene with the man who sells her dynamite is very hot. Her characters are as fiercely passionate in bed as they are in their causes. (There is also a love scene between Ellie Jo and Slim which is very sweet.)

They sure don't make them like this anymore. God bless the 1970s.

Jackson County Jail

(USA, 1976) DIR: Marvin Miller. SCR: Donald Stewart. PROD: Jeff Begun. CAST: Yvette Mimieux, Tommy Lee Jones, Howard Hesseman, Robert Carradine, Severn Darden, Mary Woronov, Hal Needham, Betty Thomas.

Jackson County Jail earned some favourable reviews for its “feminist themes”, and because it has more three-dimensional performances than one usually sees in movies of this type, but it’s exploitation all the same. Yvette Mimieux (perhaps best remembered from 1960’s The Time Machine) is very good as Dinah Hunter, an ad exec who leaves her philandering husband (Howard Hesseman!) and travels from LA to New York to a new job, and a new life. Her decision to travel by car instead of by plane (“to see the America that I never see up in the air”) is one that she soon regrets. After being robbed, stranded and then accused of theft, she is locked up at the Jackson County Jail, and raped by a law officer (who is naturally portrayed as a mentally handicapped half-wit). She escapes with another prisoner (Tommy Lee Jones, memorable in an early role) and they are pursued by police.

This has been acclaimed for its central theme of a woman rising above obstacles constructed by a man’s world. In that regard, one could compare it to Barbara Loden’s classic independent film, Wanda (1970), in which a woman must rely on an abusive jerk to get through life, as she has no skills or means of her own. In Jackson, a professional female suffers a similar fate, because every male she meets is a pig: from her adulterous husband to the slimy state troopers, and even in smaller parts like some lecher in a diner. Jones’ Coley Blake character is the sole exception to this strategy, if only because he treats her with slightly more dignity than any other man. Wanda is a brutally honest portrayal of a modern woman who cannot survive without a man. Jackson on the other hand feels more like a male’s assumptions of the female’s bleak prospects in the world. The effect is similar to Henry Jaglom’s work, in which a male’s perception of an honest “women’s picture” is to have them do nothing but discuss their menstrual cycles. In other words, when male writers and directors attempt to make a “truthful” picture about women, they often result in a movie with an exaggerated stereotype instead of anything original.

Still, this manipulative movie is quite compelling viewing, at first. But when Jones enters the picture, the movie dwindles to routine “good ole boy on the lam” caricature, and drowns in its own self-important rhetoric. This film stands out from much of Roger Corman’s other New World releases, because it features former and future A-list stars, but when Tommy and Yvette go to his hideout to meet his accomplices, and we see one of them is played by Mary Woronov, we’re back in Corman country. New World had certainly released exploitation films that also succeeded in being topical, yet this movie’s attempt to have it both ways doesn’t quite work. Seen today, Jackson County Jail remains an interesting conversation piece, but it probably will feel more manipulative than “important”. It does however have an interesting climax, which crosscuts the fugitives being hunted by the police with shots of a small-town, all-American parade. It is a perfectly Satanic ending, depicting the hypocrisy of America. Curiously, Mimieux and director Marvin Miller re-teamed two years later, for a TV movie remake! As of this writing, I’ve yet to see it, but the mind reels at what that concoction must have been.