Like all cinematic genres, the car movie has a wide variety of subgenres that tell specific types of automotive-centric stories.
There’s the chase film, perhaps best exemplified by the likes of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Vanishing Point, the road horror movie, typified by Christine and The Hitcher, the racing film like Fast Company and Ford v. Ferrari, and many, many more.
One subgenre that rather inexplicably gained massive popularity in the 1970s was the bootlegger movie. These were films in which the plot revolved around the need to transport illegal alcohol from one place to another by an antihero in a fast car.
The zenith of this subgenre, in terms of both quality and success, was a low-budget picture that virtually every studio in Hollywood had passed on before Universal Pictures decided to take a gamble on it: Smokey and the Bandit. That bet paid off in spades as it shockingly went on to make over $125 million in domestic box office receipts on its way to becoming the second highest grossing film of 1977, bested only by Star Wars.
Coincidentally, a mere three days after that Burt Reynolds smash was released, another bootlegger film came to theaters but didn’t fare nearly as well. Despite this, I felt compelled to give it a watch recently, as I discovered that it happened to star some very likable actors and feature some very serious cars in it as well.
What follows then, is my take on Moonshine County Express.
Moonshine County Express was a micro-budget film produced by Universal Majestic, and was distributed by legendary producer Roger Corman through his concern, New World Pictures, a company that sent a good portion of the era’s exploitation, car, and small-scale sci-fi movies straight to the drive-ins of America.
Penning the screenplay were two rather unseasoned writers, Hugh Smith and Daniel Ansley, and directing was Gus Trikonas, a B-movie specialist, who would later successfully cross over to becoming a prolific figure in television.
A surprisingly talented cast was assembled for such a modestly budgeted film, which included John Saxon, Susan Howard, William Conrad, Morgan Woodward, Dub Taylor, Claudia Jennings, and much to my delight, my very first crush in life, Maureen McCormick of Brady Bunch fame.
The plot of the movie revolves around the exploits of the Hammers, a bootlegging family in the Deep South, consisting of Pap Hammer and his three daughters, Dot (Howard), Betty (Jennings), and Sissy (McCormick). When Pap is murdered and his distillery destroyed at the beginning of the film, the daughters take stock of what they have left to live on, and seek to find out who killed their father.
After Pap’s will is read, the girls discover that he had amassed a large stockpile of moonshine and homebrewed whiskey in a secret underground bunker. They manage to locate it, and plan to sell it all off to various hospitality businesses around town and use the money to relocate to Florida.
Word of this gets back to the local bootlegging kingpin, Jack Starkey (Conrad), who orders his henchman, Sweetwater (Woodward) to intimidate the girls into turning over their stash to him. Sweetwater does so by having his crew of thugs shoot up the Hammer homestead late one night, but the action backfires by strengthening the girls’ resolve to resist Starkey.
Reluctantly, Dot reaches out to race car driver, veteran bootleg runner, and all-around Lothario, J.B. Johnson (Saxon), who has long had amorous sentiments towards her, to aid them in their plight. Together they discover that Sweetwater was the one who killed Pap on Starkey’s orders, and devise a plan to get all the booze out of the county in one fell swoop to sell to a distributor J.B. has worked for in the past.
The only thing standing in their way from clearing out of town with the hooch and starting a new life is Starkey, Sweetwater, and their crew of henchmen. Can J.B., Dot, and the girls execute their plan and elude them, while simultaneously bringing the local sheriff into the proceedings to arrest the baddies for the murder of Pap? All this hangs in the balance.
I found Moonshine County Express to be a highly uneven film, with some stout plusses, but unfortunately, an equal number of minuses to go along with them.
Starting with the latter is the fact that throughout its one hour and thirty-five minute runtime, very little actually happens. Storytelling of any kind relies upon strong cause-and-effect loops to propel the narrative forward and raise the stakes at every turn. Here, however, events occur, such as the murder of Pap in the first act, and the viewer is naturally anticipating an immediate, intense reaction that results from it, but they simply don’t transpire when and how they should.
Instead, the characters talk about what has just happened and what they should do about it, and then take their time getting around to acting upon those discourses. What results is a movie that laconically cruises along at its own pace, without much in the way of building suspense or thrills.
Many of the technical aspects of the film are substandard as well. There are numerous unintentional jump cuts throughout the picture, and at least as many blown match-on-action cuts that make it hard to discern what’s going on in a few of the action sequences.
Likewise, the live sound is often poor, with improper microphone selection/placement making it difficult to understand dialogue.
The most unsatisfactory technical facet has to be the camera work though. While the film’s mise-en-scene appears fairly well rendered, with natural-looking exteriors, and adequate interior lighting setups, the camera movement and blocking is positively abysmal. I stopped counting after dozens of occurrences where the camera missed essential action, made hilarious, slowly creeping corrections of poorly framed dolly shots, and captured innumerable soft focus visages.
On the plus side though, the performances are mostly excellent, with Morgan Woodward standing out amongst the cast. His depiction of Sweetwater as a cruelly sadistic thug who revels in his bad deeds is particularly effective.
Furthermore, I enjoyed how the movie celebrated its status as a genre film by pouring on the bootlegger film cliches. All the trappings of the genre including drunk preachers, copious banjo and fiddle music on the soundtrack, and a splash of female nudity are present.
For me though, the best element of the film is the choice of cars.
The first ride we are introduced to in the movie is J.B.’s race car, which happens to be one of my favorite muscle cars of all time: a 1970 Dodge Challenger coupe. Draped in non-factory red metallic paint with beige hood flames, and emblazoned with the moniker “The Candy Apple” on the doors and “A.R.E. Racing Developments” on the front fenders, the car has been extensively modified for racing duty.
Most notable on the exterior is an aftermarket style hood scoop, headlights that have been removed and replaced with blank covers, and a set of 14” Ansen Sprint-style slotted mag wheels shod with “Super Charger” rubber. The stance of the car is quite unusual, sitting high with a large gap to the fender wells.
On the inside, the car features a full roll cage, racing seats, and a four-speed shifter.
Judging by the Fratzog logo on the leading edge of the hood, and the lack of the Rallye gauge cluster, I’m guessing the car started life as a base Challenger, not an R/T, and was modified to look like a tough, big block-powered car.
Sadly, we never get a look under the hood to see what’s powering the car.
The vehicle that gets the most screen time is another Mopar though, a Sassy Grass Green 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner. Or at least that’s what is mentioned in the dialogue.
While some scenes definitely do show a genuine Roadrunner, in others, some of the car’s furniture changes (such as Magnum 500-style wheels suddenly being replaced by wheel covers, and high bucket seats sometimes giving way to a low bench) suggesting perhaps a Satellite was used for some sequences.
Regardless, the car looks cool with its black vinyl top, and partakes in the most action sequences, including three chases, before it is unceremoniously launched off a cliff and destroyed. Shame on you, director Trikonas.
Unlike with the Challenger, there is an open hood shot, but alas the camera moves away from the engine compartment, and we never see what’s lurking there.
Nonetheless, the Roadrunner/Satellite does get a good workout in the movie, and for that I was pleased.
The final car of prominence in the movie is an excellent one from the Blue Oval family – a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302.
A fairly rare car, with only 1,628 produced that year, the film’s Boss is dressed in the Bright Yellow paint it shared with 648 others.
For whatever reason, part of the leading edge of the side stripe is missing from the movie car, although this does not bring its identity into question, as all the other hallmarks of the Boss 302 are present. These include the deep front spoiler, blacked-out hood, rear window louvers, and rear wing.
The Boss also gets some exercise in the movie, appearing in an extended chase with the green Mopar.
In the end, I felt that Moonshine County Express had the necessary elements to make for a highly enjoyable film, with a good cast, some excellent cars, and exciting automotive action. Unfortunately though, the movie’s poor pacing and lack of adherence to some storytelling basics made me unable to fully engage with it.
As such, I can only give the picture five-and-a-half out of ten pistons, and suggest you look elsewhere for a thrilling car movie, unless those gorgeous muscle cars are too much for you to resist.