The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959) -*½
Years and years ago (I can’t remember how many exactly, but it was far enough back that “AMC” still officially stood for “American Movie Classics,” and the station was still positioning itself as a hipper, edgier competitor to Turner Classic Movies), I tried to tape The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow off of cable TV. I don’t know whether human error or equipment malfunction was the problem, but it turned out that I’d caught only the first 50 minutes or so. That was long enough for me to form a few distinct impressions, if not to reach a solid verdict. It was enough for me to catch on that The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow could be seen as a halfway point between American International Pictures’ hot-rodder and juvenile delinquent movies of the 1950’s (together with the likes of Invasion of the Saucer Men) and the same studio’s beach party films of the following decade; enough to start me wondering whether teenagers’ senses of humor were ever really this unsophisticated; enough to make me vaguely curious whether musical guests the Renegades and Jimmy Madden were ever heard from again (and if there was ever really such a label as American International Records). Most of all, I saw enough to marvel over the fact that, 50 minutes into a 65-minute “hot-rodders in a haunted house” movie, we’d only just got to the haunted house! It was a terrible movie, sometimes in ways that I just barely understood, but I still wanted to know how the fucking thing ended. After everything I’d seen in those five reels, what cosmic-scale idiocy would such madmen pull out of their asses for a finale? I would receive no satisfaction on that front from my truncated tape, and in those days, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was just slightly easier to find on video than home movies of Bigfoot’s bar mitzvah. All of which is really just a roundabout way of saying that this review represents a rematch that was a long time coming.
The haunted house, as I said, is a long time coming, too, but the hot-rodders we get right out of the gate. Rather unexpectedly, they’re female hot-rodders— specifically, Lois Cavendish (Jody Fair, of The Brain Eaters) and her arch-rival, Anita (Nancy Anderson). The latter girl challenges the former to a race, so they head down to that recessed aqueduct-looking thing that people in Los Angeles-set action movies are always chasing each other through. It’s a dirty race, and quickly attracts police attention. Lois is able to ditch both Anita and the pursuing motorcycle cop, though, by leading her opponent into a pool of deep standing water. Anita’s car has been stripped of more body panels than hers, leaving it vulnerable to fuel-system contamination; Anita stalls out and wrecks, the traffic cop pulls over to deal with her, and Lois makes what initially looks like a clean getaway. In fact, however, Anita is more than happy to snitch on her longtime foe, and this incident will come back to haunt Lois later.
Next we meet the Cavendish girl’s friends, the engineering and racing enthusiasts of the Zenith Motor Club. Their leader is Lois’s boyfriend, Stan (Martin Braddock, from High School Hellcats), who seems to be the one behind the move to take their hot-rodding legit, with a formal club charter and bylaws against chicken matches, illegal racing, and automotive hooliganism in general. You’ll notice that puts him on the opposite side of a philosophical divide from Lois, and in a movie that gave half a shit about storytelling, it might even blossom into an important plot point. So naturally, nothing at all ever comes of it here. The club’s big star is Tommy Ivo, apparently a real-life dragster pilot of some national renown, who as a non-actor pretty much just wanders through a few scenes to name-drop himself, and to MC a bit of gratuitous piston porn. Dave (Hot Rod Gang’s Henry McCann) and his girlfriend, Amelia (Sanita Pelkey, of Missile to the Moon), are the mad scientists of the team; if this were 1989 instead of 1959, they’d be pledging Lambda Lambda Lambda and Omega Mu when they got to college. Bonzo (Leon Tyler, from Juvenile Jungle and Dragstrip Girl), as befits his name, is comic relief of the most aggressively odious sort. He’s also got a crush on Rhoda (Elaine DuPont, of The Beach Girls and the Monster and I Was a Teenage Werewolf), who exists primarily to shoot down his attempts at romance. Ivo’s girlfriend, Hazel (Beverly Scott), hangs around too, but contributes little beyond cuteness and blondeness. Also introduced at this juncture is Tom Hendry (Russ Bender, from Anatomy of a Psycho and I Saw What You Did), a newspaper reporter writing about gearhead culture, who has sought out Stan and his club to be his Sherpa guides through the uncharted wilderness of hot-rodding. The one slightly significant point to be raised in this scene— or in the next three!— is that the Zenith Motor Club has no money with which to pay the rent on their garage this month, and will soon be evicted unless they can pull together a fundraiser fast.
The next thing that looks like a plot point is just as big a fraud as Lois and Stan’s difference of opinion on the subject of impromptu drag duels. While hanging out at the local diner, the Zenith kids are intruded upon by Anita, her boyfriend, Tony (Jack Ging, later of Play Misty for Me and Die, Sister, Die!), and their gang of hoodlum pals. No rumble materializes at this time, but a decade’s worth of JD pictures have taught us what to expect for the future. Once again, though, we’ll be expecting falsely. What really are plot points, oddly enough, are Lois’s grounding by her parents (Kirby Smith and The Astounding She-Monster’s Jean Tatum) in response to word of her recent police chase, and the revelation that her loony aunt, Anastasia Abernathy (Dorothy Neumann, from Private Parts and 13 Frightened Girls), is coming to visit for a few days. The significance of these events lies in Mrs. Cavendish’s magnanimous allowance for the motor club party that Lois was supposed to arrange to be held at their house (permitting her to uphold her responsibilities to her friends while still abiding by the letter of her grounding), which in turn leads the hot-rodders into contact with Aunt Anastasia. Why should we care about that? Because Anastasia owns that haunted house we’ve all practically given up waiting for, and she’s willing to lend it out for the Zenith fundraiser on the condition that Lois and the gang can find some way to rid the place of the shabby re-dress of the She-Creature monster suit that’s been haunting it. Yes, I suppose that does make The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow the late-50’s, “hot rods and rock & roll” version of The Ghost Breakers.
Let us be perfectly clear: I hate this movie. As hot rod exploitation, it fails by spending more time gabbing about cars than driving them— and Tommy Ivo never once gets behind the wheel! As rock & roll exploitation, it suffers from the Renegades (who manage to squeeze in a song or two every time more than about ten “teenagers” appear in a scene simultaneously) being just not very good, and from Jimmy Madden (who comes across as the Sears house-brand knockoff of Pat Boone) being in the movie at all. The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow’s one attempt to do the Phil Spector girl-group thing falls pretty flat, too, but in that case there’s no obvious culprit to incriminate. In-story, it’s supposed to be Rhoda, Hazel, and Amelia singing, but I’d be very surprised if the voices we hear actually belonged to Elaine DuPont, Beverly Scott, and Sanita Pelkey, and only the lyricist is credited for the girls’ song. The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow fails as a juvenile delinquent melodrama because the bad kids are insufficiently bad, because the good kids are insufficiently misunderstood, and because the climax to that plot thread— the rematch between Lois and Anita— occurs off-camera. It fails as a haunted house movie by not so much as mentioning the existence of the haunted house until the 40-minute mark, and by relying on the same weary old bogus haunting shtick that American horror films had been working in various ways since at least the first version of The Ghost Breaker (which was not yet plural in those days) in 1914. And above all, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow fails as comedy, not just by being unfunny, but by acting as a virtual checklist of all the forms of unfunniness known to Hollywood in the late 1950’s. It has a zany goofball, a daffy old lady, a hapless father, an irascible parrot. It has dopey sight gags, “comical” cowardice, dubbed-in “humorous” sound effects, jokes premised upon the impenetrability of teen slang. It has a third-act subplot about Dave and Amelia building an omnipotent, self-aware hot rod that horrifyingly prefigures the robot scenes in the execrable Sex Kittens Go to College. The only things it’s missing are ethnic humor and Stoogian slapstick. If it were one second longer, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow would be unendurable.
Why is it, then, that I keep catching myself standing in front of my DVD player, disc in hand, preparing as if in a trance to inflict this stinker on myself again? It’s very simple, really— I’m infatuated with Sanita Pelkey. It’s not that she’s an especially good actress, although she does better with what she’s given than most of the other young (or “young”) performers in the cast. Rather, the attraction comes from Pelkey’s embodiment of a curious casting phenomenon. Often, a screenplay will call for one of the female characters not to be good-looking. That’s fine if the character is also elderly or middle-aged, but it presents a real problem for the casting department if the role demands an ingenue, since as everyone knows, genuinely plain girls in Los Angeles are subject to extermination by fire and plastic surgery. We’ve all seen the result— glasses and a bad wig on a gorgeous actress, whom we’re then asked to accept as someone no guy would look at twice. Sometimes it goes further than that, though. Sometimes the casting and makeup people seem to have been working from an arbitrary list of minor divergences from prevailing feminine beauty norms without ever stepping back to take in the whole gestalt, so that the “plain” girl comes out not just beautiful, but so incandescently sexy that her more conventionally pretty castmates fade into invisibility beside her. Sanita Pelkey as Amelia is one such “plain” girl. Brunette? Check. Clunky glasses? Check. Severe hairstyle? Check. Minimal lipstick and eye makeup? Check. Noticeably taller than any of the men in the cast, even when wearing flats? Check. Dances with all the grace of a drunken giraffe as she struggles to find some harmonious employment for her eleven total feet or so of gangling limbs? Check. But put all that together, and holy shit! “Gawky Vulcan Amazon” might not sound like the description of anybody’s dream girl, but that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make. Whoever decided to cast Pelkey in the part of the notionally unattractive Amelia must have been thinking of her strictly as a cluster of characteristics, not realizing how far the whole would exceed the sum of its parts. I say again that I’m sorely tempted to re-watch this otherwise worthless movie right now, just to see more of her— that’s what a stunner Sanita Pelkey is. (The girl can’t lip-synch for shit, though…)