Gas-s-s-s / Gas! / Gas! or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It / Gas! or It May Become Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1970) *
You remember what I said in my review of The Monitors about 60’s satire? Well, that goes double— no, at least triple— for Gas-s-s-s. This was Roger Corman’s last film as a director for American International Pictures, and his penultimate film as a director, period, for nearly twenty years. It can also be seen as a unification of two threads from earlier in Corman’s career, the scatterbrained comedies of the early 60’s (think The Little Shop of Horrors or Creature from the Haunted Sea) and the counterculture movies (most notably The Wild Angels and The Trip) which he had made over the preceding two years. Gas-s-s-s shares the latter films’ social and political perspective, but marries it to the campy chaos of the former to produce what Corman seems to have considered a cutting-edge satire on the impending death-throes of a doomed species. Unfortunately, what the combination really produces is an almost totally plotless succession of sophomoric absurdities, weighed down by a woefully misplaced faith in its own depth and relevance.
The gas of the title is a chemical weapon developed for the US Army at a top-secret research station in the wilds of Alaska. As we are told in a pre-credits cartoon in exactly the same style as that which opens Creature from the Haunted Sea, the deadly vapor leaks out of its containment tanks, and quickly spreads to envelop the entire world. The effects of the gas are counterintuitive to say the least; it accelerates the aging of anybody over 25, resulting in their almost immediate demise from premature decrepitude. What possible war-fighting value the Pentagon could have seen in a chemical to which practically everybody on any given battlefield would be naturally immune (after all, the average age of a foot-soldier in Vietnam was nineteen) is anyone’s guess. But this is one of those movies that punish the application of logic and reason with both terrible severity and perfect consistency, so don’t waste your energy trying to make sense out of anything, okay?
Anyway, the next thing we see is a hippy named Coel (Robert Corff, who would pop up much later in a small role in Fright Night) charging across the campus of Texas A&M University with a crossbow in his hand. This will never, ever be explained, so don’t bother asking. Coel ducks into a church to evade the police who are chasing him, and once inside, he decks himself out in a priest’s vestments and takes cover within the confessional. Of course, that means Coel is going to have to fake a few absolutions before making his final escape, and the first parishioner whose confession he hears just happens to be a young grad student named Cilla (Elaine Giftos, from Angel and The Student Nurses), who was part of the team that developed the gas which is even now destroying civilization. The two of them fall in love (this will never, ever be explained either), and with the city dying all around them, they soon hit the road in Coel’s 1958 Edsel Pacer. The garishly painted bus that follows Coel and Cilla out of town actually will be explained (incredibly enough), but not until the very last scene in the film.
From here until dishearteningly close to the end, Gas-s-s-s will be nothing more than an especially episodic trek movie, with none of the events befalling our heroes having much in the way of connection to each other. First, Coel and Cilla are hijacked by a gang of car-stealing cowboys led by Billy the Kid (George Armitage, who wrote this shitsack movie in addition to Night Call Nurses and Private Duty Nurses). Then they walk into the next town and get ambushed in a record store by Black Panther wannabe Carlos (Ben Vereen, who went on to have an actual career— he was in “Roots,” for Christ’s sake!); his pregnant girlfriend, Marissa (Cindy Williams, from Beware! The Blob and The Killing Kind); their slightly more level-headed pal, Hooper (Bud Cort, of Brain Dead and Bates Motel); and a stereotypical college feminist named Coralee (Talia Shire, from The Dunwich Horror and Prophecy). Talking their way out of being shot, Coel and Cilla convince the record-store gang to help them get the Edsel back from Billy the Kid, leading to a “shoot out” which consists of the participants pointing guns at each other and hollering the names of famous cowboy actors. (“John Wayne!” inevitably administers the coup de grace to Billy himself.) Then it’s off to some sort of music festival, at which Coel establishes his hippy credentials by having GP-rated sex (which would get Gas-s-s-s up-rated to R some years down the line) with a girl he’s never seen before while Country Joe and the Fish— excuse me, “A. M. Radio and the…” well, “Somethings”— play their tedious set, occasionally delivering even more tedious speeches in between songs. Next, the Six Stooges run afoul of a marauding band of football players (led by Alex Wilson) who roam the desert in customized dune buggies, raping and pillaging, and who for some reason decide to recruit Coel, Carlos, and Hooper against their will. Our heroes make their escape, Coralee bores a couple of guys out of raping her by subjecting them to an unending lecture on female empowerment, and Marissa goes into labor but refuses to give birth (even after the guys kidnap a doctor to deliver the kid) on the grounds that it would be unconscionable to bring children into such a fucked-up world. Meanwhile, Edgar Allan Poe (Bruce Karcher) and an unidentified woman whom I presume to be Lenore trail the gang at a distance on their tricked-out Harley Davidson, pausing every so often to comment upon the action in a most hackneyed and irritating manner. Also, we keep seeing signs advertising “The Oracle,” which will apparently answer everybody’s questions if only they can reach it. When they finally do, Coel and the gang are confronted with a sign reading, “There are no answers, but keep looking anyway!— the Oracle.”
Now that would have been a great place to end the movie there. It would have made an out-and-out virtue of the film’s resolute refusal to make any kind of sense or to follow even the most rudimentary semblance of narrative structure, turning the whole business into a sort of surrealistic celluloid Zen koan. We could all have had a good laugh at the prank Corman and Armitage had played on us, and left the theater (or rewound the tape, as the case may be) in a jolly and forgiving mood. But that sign does not signal the end of the movie— far from it. In fact, we’re only a bit more than halfway through, and none of the stuff that happens between here and the closing credits will be any more comprehensible than what came before it. And with the promise of the Oracle already dashed, there will be nothing to take the edge off of our escalating ire in the face of the country club that has been taken over by Hell’s Angels and turned into a militaristic police state (get it?), the pueblo full of Indians dedicated to giving back everything they and their ancestors have taken from the white man (get it?!), or the utopian hippy commune which Coel and his friends are forced to militarize in order to protect it from attack by the football players (no, seriously— do you fucking get it?!?!). By the time God intervenes with a lightning bolt and all the dead characters clamber out of a hole in the ground to throw a great, big party on top of a mesa (accompanied by all the famous real-world dead folks of the 1960’s, who had been traveling around all the while in that van I mentioned before), I for one have long since crossed the threshold of “Fuck you, movie! You give me my 90 minutes back, right goddamned now!” Roger Corman contends that Gas-s-s-s was ruined by the round of last-minute re-edits and deletions ordered by James H. Nicholson, who was never comfortable with AIP’s forays into the realm of the counterculture. Honestly, though, I don’t see how Gas-s-s-s could possibly be improved by making it go on longer.