“Welcome to Hot Rodville!”
Drake’s rating: Two hubcaps and a checkered flag
Drake’s review: Over four decades before Vin Diesel dedicated himself to living a quarter-mile at a time, movie studios were churning out flick after flick about teenagers getting fast and furious in their souped-up cars. While The Devil on Wheels warned of the dangers of illegal street racing in 1947, the genre really took off a decade later with the release of Hot Rod Girl in 1956. And you know that where there are teenagers with money to burn on the latest drive-in craze, American International Pictures will be there.
Scripted by AIP regular Lou Rusoff, Dragstrip Girl tells the story of Louise Blake (Fay Spain), a girl looking for her kicks behind the wheel of a speedy jalopy. Introduced revving her engine at a stoplight, she attracts the attention of a couple of young men who seem quite taken with the cubic inches under her hood. A drag race ensues as the two cars speed through the downtown, AIP’s customary blue screen doing some heavy lifting here for the requisite close-ups. Losing a motorcycle cop and ending up in a garage together, Louise meets Jim Donaldson (Steve Terrell) and Fred Armstrong (John Ashley), and it’s here that the rather thin plot takes its anemic shape.
Louise is a girl, you see, a fact that comes to the attention of Jim and Fred immediately. And a girl with an interest in cars is a veritable unicorn in the cinematic world of the Fifties, so a friendly trio soon becomes strained by the inevitable jealousy of two guys with hearts in their eyes drooling over the same girl. Adding to the tension is the fact that Jim and Fred have been semi-friendly rivals for their whole lives, a rivalry that the well-to-do Fred is almost always on the losing side of compared to his working class rival.
Along the way we’re introduced to the gang the three hang out with, who in true AIP fashion are “teens” in their mid-20s (including a pre-Riddler Frank Gorshin), the place they hang out (a pizza place run by Mama, played by Grazia Narciso as a caricature rather than a character), the cop trying to keep the hot rodders on the race track and off the city streets, and Louise’s parents, Sam and Anna (Don Shelton and Dorothy Bruce). While Anna wishes Louise would wear dresses and act like a normal girl, Sam is curiously okay with his daughter speeding around town in a hot rod. One likes to think he was just as supportive when Louise went off to college, burned her bra and fought her way up through the Chevrolet design department to become the lead engineer on the Corvette.
As the tension between Fred and Jim mounts we’re treated to a fistfight between their stunt doubles, a confusing race that showcases Fred’s increasing arrogance, vehicular homicide, and base treachery that pays off in yet another breathless race that takes place in front of that poor, overworked AIP blue screen. Oh, and Frank Gorshin eats pizza with a scoop of ice cream on top. It’s chocolate, of course. Even the Riddler isn’t crazy enough to eat pizza with strawberry ice cream.
Is this a forgotten classic? Of course not! As mentioned throughout the review, this is an AIP film, with all of the budgetary realities that entails. It is, however, a decent way to spend 69 minutes if you’re in the mood for a slice of ‘50s drive-in cheese, straight out of Mama’s oven.
Trivia time: Although best known on-screen as the second banana to Frankie Avalon in AIP’s beach movies of the 1960s, John Ashley was an even bigger success behind the camera. Producing such cult classics as The Big Doll House and Savage Sisters, Ashley went into television in the ‘80s, striking it big as the producer of The A-Team during its 1983-87 run.
About his exploitation days, Ashley said, “This is a terrible thing to admit, but maybe the key to my success with exploitation films is that I always liked those movies, and I never had any real reason to turn them down. I just enjoyed doing them.”
Sentiment like that is sure to warm the heart of any Mutant!