Greetings readers! I’m back at it again with another one-two punch of old-school celluloid might, and throwing back to my seventh column for the Marquee: “Dig This Mack!”
It was there that I explored a unique rabbit hole in pop cinema: the 50s teen film phenomenon. One that existed prior to the Beach Party productions of the 60s that was chiefly founded by iconic independent studio American International Pictures. It was an era of rock-n-roll, of hot rods, and of good old-fashioned juvenile delinquency. The beauty of this era is that, because the filmmakers of the time worked around the clock to crank out as many motion pictures as possible, there are always more to explore. Making the ground even more fertile is the fact that AIP’s business model, one that became so popular that just about every other studio took the exact same approach, was centered around double features. Two pictures released simultaneously as part of a complete program. And while we won’t have a specific theater to examine today, we do have a specific package.
In 1957, one of the many packages released would happen to characterize the sheer low-budget business acumen of the studio than the double bill deal of Motorcycle Gang and Sorority Girl. The former (and presumably the “A” picture of the bunch based on its 78-minute runtime) a remake of another American International teen flick, and the latter a bona fide exploitation cheapie by none other than the Pope of Pop Cinema, Roger Corman. The end result: a swinging, shocking double bill.
Motorcycle Gang (1957)
It is here that the Curse of Cahn strikes again!
In a stroke of sheer budgetary genius, the director of the AIP teenaged hot rod flick Dragstrip Girl, studio veteran Edward L. Cahn, manages to remake his own film on two wheels, that very same year, and with much of the same cast!
Dragstrip Girl was released several months prior in April (with Motorcycle Gang arriving on the big screen in October) and centered around a generally pleasant gang of hot rodders who take in a new girl who ultimately becomes the object of two fellas’ affections, but refuses to pick one, ultimately leading to jealousy as the two vie for her.
Motorcycle Gang is admittedly meaner in spirit than its four-wheeled counterpart. Steve Terrell and High School Caesar himself, John Ashley, have a more openly adversarial relationship and past here than in the previous film (allowing for Ashley to really relish his role as the main antagonist), and in place of Fay Spain’s largely likeable yet coy drag racer is the downright despicable “Terry,” portrayed with Beat Girl aplomb by 50s blonde bombshell and Elvis costar Anne Neyland, whose indecisiveness is coming from the place of being a “free spirit.” The film shows that this kind of excessive approach to living for oneself, much like in the aforementioned British JD flick, comes at a terrible cost to those around her. The resulting film is one with a surprisingly harder edge than I anticipated. Gone is that carefree atmosphere and here to stay is something much more threatening, making feel like we’re playing by the same rules as something like the iconic Marlon Brando picture The Wild One without delving into outright noir territory.
The stunts here also add to that edge. There are quite a few that looked like they hurt, including Terry pulling a Road Warrior front flip and landing on her neck, and a biker going off a bridge and having his motorcycle come eerily close to crushing him. Combined with music by B-picture veteran Albert Glasser and dialogue so hard-boiled its served with salt and pepper in an egg cup, the end result is a classic tale of motorcycle-based delinquency, and another entertaining feather in the cap of American International’s teenaged output.
Sorority Girl (1957)
It just isn’t a marathon of American International’s finest youth schlock if there isn’t one Roger Corman picture in the bunch to blow the competition clean out of the water.
Sorority Girl definitely feels like it was made to fill the B-slot as, like many Corman films of its hour-long ilk (Rock All Night for example), but one does not simply brush off a Roger Corman B-picture. For Corman is able to make lemonade out of lemons, and might as well be spinning silk into gold, turn water to wine, and walk on said water while he’s at it, as this tale of an unhinged college student is more compelling than it has any right to be.
Sorority Girl is a shockingly engrossing melodrama surrounding the sociopathic “Sabra” (played by Corman collaborator Susan Cabot to disgusting perfection) who takes out her Mommie Dearest complex on her sorority sisters and pledges, resulting in a string of violent, malicious, and ultimately devastating acts. She has a pledge wrapped around her finger so tight that the girl will even take a beating from her, she blackmails a candidate for class president, and she even has a pregnant sorority sister try and blackmail a good friend (played by another Corman regular, the great Dick Miller) to obtain cash for both of them. Cabot steals the whole film out from under everyone, as she manages to create a shockingly mean-spirited character out of a college girl that would be right out of a modern young adult melodrama. With the mood set by Bill Martin’s creepy, almost nightmarish title sequence and a Ronald Stein score that feels almost more in tune with Corman’s horror efforts, the film becomes a quite shocking exploitation affair that exudes a genuine sense of tension based solely on how unhinged the character of Sabra is. Her reign of tyranny is something to behold, and the fact that this thing clocks in at just a hair over an hour makes it all the more impressive.
Hell, throwing in the appearance of Miller feels like a bonus at that point, as Sorority Girl proves to be a genuinely good, entertaining effort. If you ever wanted to see a college-set soap opera in 60 minutes, may this be your Holy Grail of “oh no she did-n’t.”
Watching these back-to-back feels quite natural. Both have that juvenile delinquent streak coursing through them, but in different ways. Motorcycle Gang takes a more conventional approach, what with the greased-up, leather-clad gang lead by a teen heartthrob of the day, whereas Sorority Girl takes itself more seriously, and explores a seriously disturbed young woman. There isn’t much else to say as there really isn’t much else to these films, and that’s totally fine by me. The double feature ultimately makes for an entertaining combination chock full of light thrills, some laughs, and this perfectly sleazy atmosphere formed not by explicit depictions, but through reprehensible characters and exploitative scenarios conveyed implicitly through smart filmmaking. In short, old-school exploitation films are just as fun as the grindhouse fodder of the 1970s, and you can thank American International for plenty of both!