Tom Hanson’s crude but creepy exploitation horror flick THE ZODIAC KILLER was partially lensed in the Bay City in 1970 with the cooperation of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Paul Avery (portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. in David Fincher’s ZODIAC), and -- because of its topicality, locations and blunt reenactments of murders committed by a killer still at large -- was picked up by Radley Metzger’s Audubon Films for national distribution, beating DIRTY HARRY and its “Scorpio” killer to theaters by at least six months. With a low-budgeter as high profile as this one for a directorial debut, it always struck me as strange that Hanson never made a second film...
...so I wasn’t surprised when Temple of Schlock contributor Mike MacCollum and Mondo Erotico’s Marc Morris brought THE BIG SCORE to my attention last year and very happily proved me wrong. Adding a copy of this bizarre, fascinating rarity to the Temple archives was a big score indeed.
Filmed in Tucson in the summer of 1971 under the title A TON OF GRASS GOES TO POT, Hanson’s sophomore effort – an oddball action-comedy about five middle-aged Joes trying to sneak a ton of Tijuana grass across the border in a hot air balloon – premiered at the Vine Theater in Hollywood for a one-week run on March 22nd, 1972, with previews in three other Los Angeles-area theaters the same week.
“See the ton of grass on display under armed guard at the theatre” was the ballyhoo come-on, with a ballsy ad campaign insinuating the story was based on fact and that Hanson, during the course of the film’s production, had indeed transported a ton of marijuana into the U.S. from Mexico. The opening day ad in the Los Angeles Times featured a picture of a hot-air balloon next to the following excerpt from a supposedly official transcript:
D.A.: We have information that while filming “A Ton of Grass,” you did in fact smuggle a ton of marijuana into the United States.
HANSON: Where do you get your information?
D.A.: On July 6, 1971, at approximately 5 p.m., did you and your crew use a police escort to haul a large crate thru the United States side of the Tijuana border?
D.A.: What was in the crate?
HANSON: A large four man balloon.
D.A.: On July 14, 1971, at approximately 8 a.m., did you recover that same balloon in Tucson, Arizona?
D.A.: What was in that balloon?
HANSON: I refuse to answer any more questions without my attorney present.
If this campaign had any truth to it then Hanson himself would’ve been under armed guard on opening night and not his ton of grass -- a possible reason why we never heard from him again. A TON OF GRASS GOES TO POT, however, was acquired by distributor Billy Fine (of Fine Films, originally Medford Films) and reissued under the BIG SCORE moniker in 1973 before slipping into near total obscurity.
The version reviewed here appeared on home video in Australia in the 1980s on the Platinum label and carries the re-release title. Running time is 79 minutes.
During the nicely photographed (and violent) opener -- an early morning desert shootout influenced by THE WILD BUNCH and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID -- bumbling Mexican police wipe out a gringo drug gang but fail to turn up their merchandise, a ton of marijuana worth $1,050,000.
Cut to a restaurant in southern California where four disparate types who know each other from prior failed business ventures and are all in need of some quick cash --
A chiropractor, Dr. Frank Bell (Oliver Aubrey)
Duke, a contractor (Bob Garrett)
Rick, an out of work actor (Arnie Koslow, memorable as the psychic in THE ZODIAC KILLER)
and pawnbroker Hal Kennedy (Rik Garrison, also in THE ZODIAC KILLER)
-- have gathered to hear the latest get-rich-quick scheme from smooth-talking entrepreneur Mike Shaw (played by Hal Reed, THE ZODIAC KILLER’s titular topliner)
Shaw not only knows where the missing pot is stashed, he’s just paid his last $8,000 for it and hatched a harebrained plan to get it out of Mexico in an unmanned 240-cubic foot hot air balloon. All he needs now are four other borderline desperate, money-hungry jerks to help out for equal shares. Faster than you can remember the title of that other “Would-you-like-to-smuggle-a-shitload-of-pot-out-of-Mexico-in-my-beautiful-balloon” comedy from the early ‘70s --
-- the five-man team is en route to Mexico in a rented truck, hauling a crate containing one hot air balloon and desert necessities such as water, gas, and automatic weapons.
Along the way they pick up a rock group called the Imperial Boat Band, and they perform “Freakin’ on the Freeway” for a couple of hippie hitchhikers in the back of the truck as it heads for the border.
The boys find the ton of grass in a shack on the property of one of Mike’s black marketeering buddies, a guy who normally deals in suede goods but was more than happy to sell the bricks of bud to Mike for eight grand.
Unfortunately, the guy also sold the whole ton to an Afro-American biker gang for five grand.
Tom Johnigarn (from THE BAD BUNCH and SASQUA) plays the leader of the gang.
A gang that wants the ton of grass it paid for.
But Mike and the boys aren't about to give it up.
Plotwise, that’s about it for THE BIG SCORE.
Hanson’s filmmaking is noticeably more polished here than it was in THE ZODIAC KILLER, with some strong compositions, a few well constructed tracking shots and - for the most part - pretty good performances. If he had played by the rules and stuck to the basic adventure story he sets up from the start, he might've had a big drive-in hit on his hands. Instead, he blew it by trying to shoehorn elements of JOE and EASY RIDER into the action template and creating something that didn’t have a target audience in 1972, wouldn’t have had one five years earlier and most likely never will have one outside of the few of you who are reading this now, today, and thinking, "Wow, where do I find a copy?!"
The rampant misogyny that gets a free pass in THE ZODIAC KILLER because it falls within the context of a serial killer storyline has no place to hide this time out as women are excluded from the mix entirely, save for a whore who survives the opening shootout, only to have the Federales drag her around by her hair and slap her silly to reveal the whereabouts of the much sought-after Tijuana treasure, the ton of grass.
Otherwise, females are only alluded to in THE BIG SCORE as ex-wives whose alimony demands provide the impetus for the clods to go on their cockamamie caper. As I wrote last year in my review of THE THURSDAY MORNING MURDERS, a low-budget exploitation movie with no women was box-office poison at the drive-ins. Add to that a no-name cast and not one but two lousy titles -- the first unwieldy and spoilerish (A TON OF GRASS GOES TO POT), the second totally generic and forgettable (THE BIG SCORE) -– and this movie was pretty much guaranteed a one-way ticket to oblivion.
But y'know what? The off-kilter aspects of this film that helped sink it almost 40 years ago are the same reasons we've screened it here at the Temple a half dozen times in the past year, and we wouldn't have wanted it any other freakin' way. It's impossible to tell if Hanson smoked too much of the ton during production or if he was totally off his trolley from the start, but the man's a kind of mad movie scientist and you won’t believe some of the crap he tries to get away in this thing, beginning with that stupid appearance by the Imperial Boat Band. I better show you a few more examples, otherwise this review will be over and I'll be back to worrying whether or not there are 15 other Hanson movies as good as this one waiting to be found somewhere, someday.
While Rick, Hal and the Doc pack the bricks into a crate --
-- Mike and Duke take the truck into town to buy a Jeep from another of Mike’s questionable business associates.
Fred is a sleazy pimp who first raises the price for the Jeep…
…then attempts to stiff them on a boat when Mike misleadingly tells him they’re planning to get the pot stateside by water and not by air…
…and finally tries to hook them up with a couple of his girls.
Sensing that Fred is setting them up for some kind of trouble, Mike tells Duke he’ll meet him back at the shack and sends him out the rear exit of the cantina. Mike then strolls out through the front door and is promptly arrested for attempting to steal the unregistered Jeep he just bought from Fred.
Duke returns to the shack and smokes a fat one with Rick, Hal and Dr. Bell until they’re all stoned out of their minds.
We can tell they’re stoned out of their minds because of the spacey dissolve effects and the way the camera slowly rocks back and forth through the whole scene.
Mike, meanwhile, is trying to figure out who he has to pay off to get out of jail (“You gringos,” laughs one of the guards, “All you care about is money!”).
Back at the shack, the camera keeps swinging as the guys bitch about the generation gap --
-- until Rick, the most liberal of the bunch (an actor – go figure), realizes that Mike hasn’t returned yet and might be in trouble.
So he and Duke return to town and break Mike out of jail by securing a piece of telephone pole to the front of the Jeep and driving it through the brick wall of the police station.
Now, if Hanson had used a real Jeep and a normal-sized breakaway wall I wouldn’t have mentioned this sequence at all -- but because he tried to pull it off with a combination of miniatures and forced perspective for what looks like a $1.98, I'm tempted to name an entire wing of the Temple after this unsung poverty row genius.
Also, this setpiece contributes almost nothing to the plot. The Federales are on Fred's payroll, and since Fred's been fed wrong information, they assume the pot's leaving the country by boat and they're never heard from again. My God -- could it be possible Hanson wrote this segment only because he wanted to try it with toys and trick photography?!
Here we go again -- another stunner. On their way to the balloon’s designated launching point, Mike and the guys encounter a wandering band of spaced-out hippies.
“Good afternoon, fellow Americans. My commune and I are weary. Have you any food you can share with us?”
Mike responds by yelling at them -- in German.
Like he's a Panzer general in North Africa all of a sudden.
I'm tellin' ya, folks, it just gets better and better. A couple of minutes later Johnigarn meets up with the same hippies. “Hey man, how long ago did you see the guys in the truck and Jeep go by?”
“As you can see, they show no love for God’s handiwork..."
"...crushing every living plant that lies before them, tearing and ripping these beautiful flowers from this garden..."
"...destroying these defenseless creatures with their nosy, ugly, polluting machines.”
“Well now -- I guess they just figured it beats walkin’.
How long ago?”
“My family and I were just getting into the rays of the sun as they were gently setting over the crust of God’s mountain.”
“My fellow American, my commune and I are weary. Have you any food that you can give us?”
“Well now, isn’t that something? Man, if I had any – which I don’t – I’d keep it. And besides, if I gave you any food I’d be taking away from your dignity.”
“Dignity? Dignity? What is dignity? It is written ‘The meek shall inherit the earth,’ and as Moses said -- ”
“Copout. Copout. This isn’t the States, y’know! Those kids can starve down here! There ain’t no welfare here. Now why the hell don’t you go home and try standing on your own two feet like a man and get a job.”
“Mommy, what’s a job?”
Not long after this exchange the bikers run out of gas.
They're stuck in the desert with no food, no water, and no ton of grass. Johnigarn is about to cut open a cactus for water --
“Hey man, are you crazy? Maybe that’s bad stuff!”
“What do you expect – Orange Julius?!”
-- when from out of nowhere comes a fully-stocked supply truck driven by special guest star...
Food, water, gasoline -– everything but the kitchen sink and a ton of grass, and thankfully no references to cabbage second by a head.
"Cabbage by a head!"
But wait – WAIT – ‘cause it gets even better. Around the campfire that night the guys talk Mike into smoking a joint with them, hoping it’ll get him to loosen up a bit.
Instead, he insults them by claiming that the effects of marijuana -- like hypnotism -- depend on the intelligence of the subject.
“My dear unlearned friends,” he says in between tokes, “it is impossible to hypnotize an extremely intelligent person. This is also true of marijuana.
My superior intellect refuses to let this filthy weed control my mind.”
Hal loses his temper. “You know what you are? You’re a goddamn dictator!”
Mike smiles. “You know? You just might be RIGHT!” and gives Hal a Nazi salute, which becomes a freeze-frame --
-- which leads into the film’s pièce de résistance --
-- a jaw-dropping 7-minute sequence in which Mike and the guys are depicted as members of the Nazi high command.
In a movie that's only 79 minutes long.
At this juncture I think it’s important to mention that at least 4 scenes were cut from THE BIG SCORE, a fact revealed during the “order of appearance” credits at the close of the film.
The excised scenes presumably introduce Doctor Bell, Hal, Rick and Duke at their respective jobs and show them receiving the invitation from Mike to meet for dinner.
It's probable the 4 scenes were cut in 1973 for the Fine Films release as THE BIG SCORE. The new title seems consistent with the rest of the opening credits and the Fine logo is superimposed over the opening shot, so some preparation went into this release.
However, why those scenes were jettisoned, but two others were allowed to make the final cut unaltered --
–- and I am referring to the 10 minute opener that features none of the principal actors and this 7 minute tinted dream sequence in German (with no sub-titles!) --
–- in a movie that now barely clocks in at 79 minutes --
-- is a question for the ages.
Maybe we should ask the "Tijuana treasure."
The evidence suggests its weight was well under a ton by the time THE BIG SCORE reached the screen!