As we’ve discussed many times before in the pages of this column, the 1970s were indisputably the Golden Era for car movies. Never before had such a volume of automotive-themed films been produced in a sole decade, and most certainly never since.
One could likely attribute this phenomenon to the cultural changes going on in the United States at the time, with the youth of America seemingly obsessed with notions of freedom, adventure, and exploration. In film terms, what better symbol for exploring these sentiments could there be than the automobile?
And boy, did Hollywood attempt to cash in by using cars and the open road to put butts in seats.
This month, I thought we’d have a look at one such film that was brought to my attention by way of a reader’s suggestion. It’s a 1970s movie that I willingly confess that I had never heard of, but from the looks of it, should definitely be worthy of a watch and a review if for no other reason than there are some killer examples of classic muscle in it.
So without further pontification or delay, I give you 1978’s Hi-Riders!
Hi-Riders was a production of the World Amusement Company in association with Dimension Pictures, a distribution concern that was known for churning out low-budget horror and exploitation films. The movie was written and directed by first-time helmer Greydon Clark, who would go on to direct many more low-budget pictures.
Starring in the movie is seasoned character-actor Mel Ferrer as the Sherriff, television veteran Stephen McNally as Mr. Lewis, Darby Hinton as Mark, and a host of largely unknown thespians including Wm J. Beaudine as T.J., Roger Hampton as Billy, and noted stuntwoman Diane Peterson as Lynn.
The film’s story, if you could describe it as such, revolves around a gang of Los Angeles miscreants who call themselves, shockingly, the Hi-Riders, owing to how they set up the rear stance of their cars. The gang devotes the majority of their time to street racing, drinking, starting fights, and chasing skirts.
Mark and Lynn, newcomers to town from San Diego, challenges and beats one of the Hi-Riders, Billy, in a drag race and are stiffed by the latter on their winnings. Chasing Billy to the gang’s hangout on the outskirts of town, Mark and Lynn meet the gang’s president, T.J., who suggests a new race to settle the dispute, which Mark handily wins.
T.J. takes a liking to Mark and Lynn and invites them to roll with the Hi-Riders on their next exploit, which consists of causing mayhem in a small town, and more excessive alcohol intake and womanizing. Things go awry though when Billy and a local boy both die in a vicious, fiery crash during a drag race.
As it turns out, the boy was the son of a big wig, who puts a bounty on the heads of the Hi-Riders who he blames for his boy’s death. An ambush is set, and all of the Hi-Riders are killed, with the exception of T.J., Mark, and Lynn, who are elsewhere.
When T.J., Mark, and Lynn find out what’s happened, they appeal to the town’s Sherriff, who is reticent to do anything to help them. When they too barely escape an attempt on their lives and come to suspect that the Sherriff is in on the plot, T.J., Mark, and Lynn decide to take matters into their own hands.
And that, my friends, in quintessential grindhouse manner, is about all there is to the plot.
By this point, you’re probably suspecting that Hi-Riders is no Citizen Kane, and you’d be right. This is a pure exploitation flick, made to attract couples to the drive-in to make out, and maybe catch a few frames of the film. But unlike some movies of this ilk, it puts on no pretensions at being high art, which, from where I stand, is a plus.
As far as the various dramatic and technical facets of the movie are concerned, pretty much all are abysmal.
The tone of the film is hugely uneven, vacillating between camp, drama, and suspense, with none being executed particularly well. The film’s characterizations are also strictly cardboard cutouts, with zero backstories, and no development. What’s more, the dialogue is corny to the extent that it’s often comical, and its delivery by the actors is stilted and wooden.
On the technical side, I would have nicknamed the cinematographer the Prince of Darkness, until I discovered that no lesser a personage than Dean Cundey (Escape From New York, The Thing, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park) lensed the film. Either Cundey hadn’t yet mastered his trade at the time of shooting Hi-Riders, or perhaps he had been temporarily dosed with a strong psychotropic drug, as most of the night scenes here are massively underlit, and the daylight sequences look like a soap opera, soaked in high key sunlight.
The editing and sound are also barely marginal, as is the attention to continuity, with wardrobe and props miraculously changing from shot to shot at times.
There are two elements, however, that save this mess from total oblivion.
The first is the soundtrack, which, while including some dreadful original music, including what may be the most cliched and ridiculous song I’ve ever heard called “Touch Me” by Jack Skinner, also features a few awesome tracks from the 1970s. Radio hits “Rock On” by David Essex, and “Taking the Time to Find” and “Let it Go, Let it Flow” by Dave Mason, are put to good use here.
The other saving grace for Hi-Riders is the cars. And what a bevy of winners we have here.
The prime vehicle in the movie, or from where I stand, the one that gets the most screen time, is Mark’s 1968 Pontiac Firebird. Painted in a silver-gray, it sports twin, black hood and trunk stripes, a black vinyl roof, an aftermarket rear spoiler, side pipes, and staggered deep-dish mag wheels with massive rear tires.
When asked by T.J. what’s under the hood, Lynn proudly rattles off, “427, Cyclone headers, ported and relieved, high-lift cam, 11.5:1 compression ratio, Mallory ignition.” As to whether any of that fun stuff was actually on the car, we’ll never know, as we don’t actually get a look under the hood. We do catch a quick glimpse at a console-mounted auxiliary tach next to an automatic transmission shifter though. And, for what it’s worth – she sounds awfully good revving and running.
My favorite car in the movie, though, has to be T.J.’s 1968 Dodge Charger R/T. Resplendent in red, the car is also outfitted with a black, vinyl roof, side pipes and mag wheels. T.J. has had the rear jacked up somewhat and has applied various aftermarket brand stickers behind the front wheel arch in period NASCAR fashion. Again we don’t get to see what’s what under the hood, but by my guess, it was packing a 440 Magnum.
Billy’s 1967 Mercury Cougar also figures prominently in the film. Jacked up to the max in the rear, the car is wearing gray primer all over and has a wing-style rear spoiler and a 1969 Cougar-style hood complete with scoop.
Other notable cars in the film include a very cool 1969 AMC Javelin with a full flame treatment, a ’67 Chevy Camaro, a very nice 1970 Dodge Challenger, a 1970 Cougar, and a 1971 Plymouth Duster that, for some reason, has “Dolemite” painted on the sides.
Hi-Riders is typical of the car-based exploitation films of the period – short on plot, character, and any semblance of logic, but long on cars and racing. It’s not the most pleasurable 90 minutes I’ve ever spent, but if you’re just looking to see some cool Detroit iron, here’s my advice: play it on two-times speed and slow it down for the car stuff. You won’t miss anything important. I give Hi-Riders four and a half out of ten pistons.
See y’all next time!