Though it prominently features the
immortal Gene Vincent and his rockin' Blue Caps, a slew
of souped-up rods and dreamy teen fave John Ashley, Hot
Rod Gang is a film which invariably disappoints upon
first viewing. Nearly undone by its sodden slapstick elements
and cloyingly obvious corn, it nonetheless possesses enough
tattered charm to pass cult-film muster.
Its plot, detailing Ashley's bid
to convince his wealthy dowager aunts that he is indeed
deserving of the family inheritance, is the most fragile
of skeletons upon which to hang the rockabilly respites
and tired banter. Ashley wears his chutzpah on his sleeve,
undulating through a warmed-over Elvis emulation with Gene
Vincent right there on the premises. Truth be told, he doesn't
sing badly, but his preppy coif and Hollywood cheekbones
come off as hollow glitz alongside Vincent's genuine article.
It is, in fact, Gene's idea that
Ashley don a fake beard and string tie, "like one of
those Greenwich Village cats," so that John might clandestinely
further his singing career, raising sorely-needed dough
with which to fund his rubber-burning shenanigans.
Perky rich chick Jody Fair is the
gang's unlikely rockabilly connection. As an old pal of
Vincent's, she sets up shop as Ashley's ostensible agent.
In the end, John guiltily reveals the secret of his meteoric
rise to his pixilated aunts, who girlishly endorse his bid
for stardom and end up playing a major role in humiliating
the bad boys from the wrong side of the tracks when they
threaten to disrupt Vincent's gymnasium fundraiser.
Vincent is the film's main attraction. Hot Rod Gang
is a rare opportunity to catch a genuine rock legend in
his prime on celluloid. Of the thousand redneck kids frantically
grabbing at Elvis' coattails, Vincent was just about the
best. Hardly a slavish Presley impersonator, Gene emerged
as one of a handful of contemporaries forging a style of
some individuality amid a frenzied pantheon of hiccuping
He and close friend Eddie Cochran
scored impressively with appearances in The Girl Can't
Help It, a Jayne Mansfield vehicle peppered with vital
rock-and-roll cameos. It's been said that Cochran, who nailed
a substantial supporting part in Untamed Youth that
same year, appears unbilled in Hot Rod Gang, but
my trained eyes have yet to spot him.
Gussying up the Gang cast
to little effect are character veterans Dub Taylor and Doodles
Weaver along with AIP's house 'grown-up,' the redoubtable
Russ Bender in one of his lovably craggy performances.
John Ashley transitioned gracefully
into American International's beach film scene a few years
later, showing no signs of age and appearing in four blockbuster
sand sagas. Following an embarrassing appearance in the
shamelessy irredeemable, The Eye Creatures, he moved
behind the camera, producing a fistful of Philippino horror
films. Aimed squarely at the U.S. drive-in market, he teamed
with director Eddie Romero on titles like Twilight People
and Mad Doctor of Blood Island. Once back in the
states, Ashley turned to television , producing several
series in the mid-1980s.
Ashley must recall his salad days
with affection. For a time, he was among the most sought
after juvenile leads in the business, dominating AIP's rapacious
roster of good-lookin' kids. Highlighted below are a pair
of teen-film classics that demonstrate what Ashley could
do with a decent role.
High School Caesar
Unloved and spoiled
rotten by rich elders, Ashley appears as a class-cutting
Capone, manipulating a network of homeroom thugs who carry
out his dirty work. 'Mob rule in a High School,' crowed
the posters. The theme song rocks.
Ashley works hard
to outshine sexy Fay Spain, whose well-to-do parents just
don't understand her need for speed. Steve Terrell, slayer
of Saucer-Men, is the good kid. The ubiquitous Russ Bender
is on hand and Frank Gorshin mugs without shame.