Monday, July 19, 2010


For a brief period of time, producer Joe Solomon really seemed to have his finger on the pulse of young America with low-budget counterculture movies like HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS, THE GAY DECEIVERS and EVEL KNIEVEL to his credit, but his run of success screeched to a halt not long after he was the subject of an Esquire article by Roger Ebert titled “The Last of the Schlockmeisters.” The most depressing example of this downswing is HOT SUMMER WEEK (a.k.a. GIRLS ON THE ROAD), a hopelessly botched attempt at a youth-oriented psycho thriller that reeks of phony baloney from the first scene. Based on a story by British writer Dail Ambler (NIGHT AFTER NIGHT AFTER NIGHT) and originally titled HAPPENING, the film was set to go before cameras in April 1970 with Bruce Kessler directing, but Solomon pulled the plug and Kessler ended up doing SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES instead. When we asked Kessler about the project a few years ago he drew a total blank, but his collaborator in the late ‘60s, screenwriter Jerry Wish, had this to say about HAPPENING during our interview with him in early 1999:

“The last project I worked on for Joe Solomon was this film that Bruce and I were going to shoot in Big Sur. Joe had bought some story by an English writer who wrote about two young gals in their teens who go off on a summer drive and run into trouble with a rapist. He couldn’t use it the way it was so he hired me to adapt it, and Bruce and I scouted locations in Big Sur. We were working on it, and I felt we had a good story, but Joe hired some gal named Gloria Goldsmith to write it, and then Bruce didn’t direct it. I saw it one time on TV. All I remember about it is that I think it had Ralph Waite in it.”

Considering the Kessler/Wish team had just successfully salvaged THE GAY DECEIVERS from a reportedly unfilmable script by Gil Lasky & Abe Polsky, it would’ve been interesting to see their take on Ambler's story (Possibly an American counterpart to AND SOON THE DARKNESS? We'll never know). The finished film gives “story by” credit to Goldsmith, with two additional writers joining her on the screenplay (Larry Bischoff and Michel Levesque) and the names Dail Ambler and Jerry Wish nowhere in sight. Also absent from the credits, but listed in the IMDb and elsewhere as a co-writer, is David F. Kaufman, Levesque's collaborator on WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS. With so many cooks stirring the pot, the story still unfolds like it was taken from a first draft, and a sloppy one at that. Pic first made the rounds beginning in June 1972 as HOT SUMMER WEEK, then returned the following year under it's more common handle GIRLS ON THE ROAD (a title that's not even on file with the MPAA).

On the first day of summer vacation, two dingbat SoCal high school chicks -- bespectacled good girl Karen (Dianne Hull) and spoiled rich blonde Debbie (Kathleen Cody) -- take off in the latter’s Mustang for her parents’ beach house in Big Sur and immediately lose points (with this viewer anyway) by driving like idiots for no reason and stealing a hippie hitchhiker’s guitar. Thumbing rides along the same route is Will (Michael Ontkean), a recently discharged Vietnam vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. We know he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because the flashbacks of him meeting with his Army psychiatrist tell us so. And we know these are flashbacks because they’re wavy, tinted blue, and spliced into the story whenever Ontkean attempts to change his facial expression -– like when he hears a radio news bulletin about a maniac who’s killing young girls in Big Sur. Will's introductory scene has him picking a fight with two bikers in a bar and wiping the floor with both of them by fighting dirty and pulling a gun; he comes across more like a bullying high school jock than a psychologically-scarred war veteran. Now we have three characters we couldn’t care less about.

The filmmakers’ inability to tell a simple freakin' story grows more obvious once the trio reaches Big Sur and it's revealed that Will has gone AWOL from the Institute of Human Potential, one of those uniquely west coast 10-person encounter groups in which members dabble in body painting, meditate in a circle with their hands joined and their eyes closed, and constantly refer to each other as “beautiful.” Wouldn’t you know it, the Institute (headed by a bearded, daishiki-clad Ralph Waite) is not only located right down the beach from Debbie’s parents’ summer home, it’s ground zero for the rash of killings we keep hearing about in news bulletins that were obviously added as post-production afterthoughts since they don’t seem to be emanating from TVs or radios that actually appear onscreen. There’s also no evidence of a police investigation, which is odd considering the amount of media coverage dedicated to the serial slayings. No need for spoiler warnings either: Any suspicion that Will might be the killer goes out the window the second John McMurtry shows up as “The Maker,” a.k.a. Lieutenant Williams, another head case from Will’s platoon…and the same guy who is pictured in the ad mat below menacing the girls with a hatchet. And still we’re subjected to endless wavy blue flashbacks that feebly attempt to establish Will as some kind of red herring.

On the plus side, there’s…well…there's really not much of a plus side. Waite does what he can with the little he’s given and still walks away with the picture. Solomon has a cameo as a liquor store customer who agrees to buy wine for the girls; fans of his motorcycle movies will recognize the Devil’s Advocates "colors" on the two bikers in the roadside café, as well as massacre footage from THE LOSERS that gets recycled as one of Will’s nightmares. The cute opening credits display the names of the cast and crew on bumper stickers, interspersed with real examples such as “Honk if you’re horny” and “Down with hot pants,” but it’s a waste of a good idea since the road aspect of the story is dropped by the 30-minute mark. Tech credits are OK overall, aided considerably by David Walsh's attractive photography, with a pleasant if forgettable Tom McIntosh score (Stu Phillips, who scored all of the Fanfare productions from HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS onward, recounts his split from Solomon just prior to this film in his very entertaining autobiography Stu Who?). One-shot director Thomas J. Schmidt, an A.D. for John Sturges on HOUR OF THE GUN and ICE STATION ZEBRA, never got a second chance to prove himself with a more competent script. He passed away in 1975 at the age of 35.


Anonymous said...

Well, I enjoyed HOT SUMMER WEEK when I saw it back in 1972. I still think it's kinda fun. One think I like about it is seeing Disney actress Kathleen Cody get a little trashy, for a change.

Anonymous said...

years ago, i taped "girls on the road" off a late night movie broadcast. i still have the cassette, so the film really isn't "endangered," just unavailable. i've seen the film twice and i think it's a "good" movie. (but truth be told my tastes run to trash). dianne hull is deliciously sensual. kathleen cody is decorative. ralph waite, michael ontkean, and john mcmurtry all give workmanlike performances. these performances may not be of academy award calibre, but these actors do the best that they can with the roles they are given. "girls on the road" really isn't a drive in exploitation film. there's little explicit sex or violence. it's an early seventies post counter culture period piece. (think "easy rider" but with a car instead of cycles and girls instead of men.) "girls on the road" is episodic. it's alternately "mellow" and "moody." but it's definitely rewarding.