Solid jokes and some funny supporting turns help this scattershot sci-fi/counterculture
burlesque. Olive Films has released on Blu-ray GAS-S-S-S (or as it’s titled
onscreen: GAS! – OR – IT BECAME NECESSARY TO DESTROY THE WORLD IN
ORDER TO SAVE IT), financed and released by American International Pictures,
directed by Roger Corman, written by George Armitage, and starring Robert Corff,
Elaine Giftos, Bud Cort, Talia Shire, Ben Vereen, Cindy Williams, Alex Wilson,
Lou Procopio, Phil Borneo, Alan Braunstein, David Osterhout, voicework of Lennie
Weinrib, and Country Joe McDonald. When GAS-S-S-S bombed with the critics and
the public when released in late 1970, it was the final footnote to the end
of a lot of things: the end of AIP’s spate of trippy counterculture movies;
the end of producer/director Corman’s relationship with AIP; and almost
the end of Corman’s days as a director. Seen today, GAS-S-S-S is, at best,
hazy, disorganized satire of America’s last days of the 1960s, but with
enough funny ideas and good one-liners to keep you sticking around to the finish.
Only an original trailer is included on this quite nice 1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen
In a (barely) animated pre-credit sequence, we learn that at the dedication of a new U.S. military chemical/biological warfare unit in Alaska, a bottle containing nerve gas (instead of champagne) was used to christen the lab, resulting in a worldwide pandemic that killed everyone over the age of 25, through an accelerated aging process. Far from lamenting the loss of older family and friends, the various factions of the youth of America celebrate. Their dream has come true: no adults, so it’s time to remake America. Hippie anarchist Coel (Robert Corff, FRIGHT NIGHT) hooks up with Cilla (Elaine Giftos, THE STUDENT NURSES, EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK), the lab assistant and mistress of the doctor who came up with the gas, as they survey the coming revolution at Southern Methodist University. They don’t like what they see. Not unlike their adult counterparts, the various youth groups hate each other, so it’s time to split Dallas, particularly since the fuzz now rule it like a banana republic. On the road, Coel and Cilla meet other refugees from the struggle, including black bandit Carlos (Ben Vereen, THE ZOO GANG) his ditzy white girlfriend, Marissa (Cindy Williams, BEWARE! THE BLOB, THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL), Carlos’ fellow gang member Hooper (Bud Cort, HAROLD AND MAUDE, INVADERS FROM MARS '86), and Hooper’s girlfriend Coralee (Talia Shire, THE DUNWICH HORROR, PROPHECY). Off through the desert landscape to New Mexico, seeking The Oracle who promises answers to their questions, the group encounters car thieves, fascist football players who rape and pillage, and hippie commune members who only offer peace and love.
Despite the perception among
some today that the director was critically orphaned during his career, there
were mainstream reviewers who took Roger Corman (THE MASQUE OF THE
RED DEATH, THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE seriously in the 1960s, particularly
during his universally well-received cycle of Poe titles. However, by the time
GAS-S-S-S bombed in ’71 (the same year his United Artists WWI epic, VON
RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN, crashed and burned), the few serious critics that had
remained in his corner finally left. Considering GAS-S-S-S’ troubled production,
it’s difficult to assign specific blame for its failure. Right off the
bat one might offer that it was simply a matter of timing; by 1971, the counterculture,
on most fronts, was turning into a major bummer, and maybe audiences just weren’t
in the mood for tripping out to a satire lambasting it (1969’s EASY RIDER
did spur mainstream Hollywood to go hog wild with “youth” pictures...but
most failed at the box office, perhaps in part because Hopper’s deeply
pessimistic classic was already sounding the hippie death knell).
Certainly Corman’s continued difficulties with AIP heads Samuel Arkoff and Jim Nicholson didn’t help, either. Both parties agreed drastic post-production cutting was done on GAS-S-S-S, with Corman stating it was unwanted and crippling from now-newly conservative studio heads (done when he had left the movie with AIP while setting up VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN in Europe), while Arkoff claimed Corman agreed to cuts being needed, assigning his own editors to the task, but then disavowed the changes when the editors didn’t salvage an already faulty product. Corman and screenwriter George Armitage (VIGILANTE FORCE, HIT MAN) both stated GAS-S-S-S began shooting with an unfinished script—a script that was constantly revised in part because of production difficulties (apparently the weather was a persistent problem). Laying blame aside, when you combine an incomplete script, being rewritten on the fly, with a technically difficult production, injurious post-production tampering between a warring studio and the director, and top it all off with a final product that comes over as fuzzy at best, then you’ve got yourself the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in terms of a doomed picture.
If GAS-S-S-S is really just a send-up of previous Corman pictures (as some critics assert), rather than a humorous take on America and the counterculture...then it’s not a particularly cohesive self-examination from the director. We see bits and pieces of Corman’s conventions, but they add up to less than their individual parts. Unless an approved director’s cut could somehow be assembled for comparison (highly doubtful), it’s impossible to say who’s responsible for the existing movie's diffused, disjointed tone. What is there on the screen, though, is often amusing at least, and sometimes interesting...but not at all effective. Scripter Armitage’s jokes hit more than miss, but the herky jerky nature of the movie’s construction flattens out the laughs. The opening cartoon is a disaster (what a dumb way to open this kind of movie), followed by the first confusing sight of Coel, running through campus toting a crossbow (we’re never told why, nor do we get any backstory on Cilla’s involvement with the gas’ production). However, a few of the opening jokes are laugh-out-loud funny (the doctor, tongue depressor at the ready, ordering a patient to, “Say, ‘Ahhhhhhhh’m prepared to pay,’”), and after a few truly weird scenes of apocalyptic disaster in Dallas (almost like from another movie), we’re ready to go along with GAS-S-S-S’ quirky, clashing nature (I hit the floor with that hilariously dubbed rookie cop, with Corman and Armitage anticipating all those poorly-looped chop socky epics by a few years).
The ideas in GAS-S-S-S are potentially interesting, as well; too bad they’re not expanded upon, or assembled for maximum impact. Cindy Williams’ 1960s music-obsessed fan (“Hi! Remember The Twist? What started White Americans dancing again?”) is a potential knock-out (is that her way of hiding from what has happened to society?). However, she’s used mostly for cheap laughs instead of genuine pathos. The fascistic footballers may be shallow and obvious skewering of an easy target (a lot of raping went on in those hippie communes, too, guys...), but the point of Armitage’s outrage—what that may be is hard to say—is muted by the fact that Corman shoots the players as basically likeable buffoons. Alex Wilson’s Genghis Khan-like football captain isn’t frightening; he’s hysterical (god why wasn’t Wilson, of THE GRISSOM GANG and DIRTY LITTLE BILLY note, used in an Altman movie...instead of overrated Bud Cort?). But then again, Armitage and Corman seem to have big trouble handling the rape theme here (a valid story element for the post-apocalyptic genre). We’re made to think Cilla avoided rape by lecturing her three painfully shy attackers into a stupor (a funny idea), but then she admits to Coel, with a sad, resigned, plucky smile, that she was raped, and that she just “laid back and enjoyed it.” Uh...is this suddenly a 1960s ring-a-ding-ding Sinatra movie? I wonder if cheap laughs would have resulted if Corman had actually filmed those rapes. Of course he wouldn’t have, though—Corman was always too refined and respectable to do anything truly exploitative in his exploitation movies. That kind of disturbing, cutting edge moviemaking (think Peckipah’s deeply perverse, masterfully compromising rape scene in STRAW DOGS that same year) was way beyond Corman the director.
The rest of GAS-S-S-S is more of the same: funny one-liners and potentially thought-provoking ideas, basically going nowhere. Corman stages a rock concert/“happening” at a drive-in theater (where the double feature was THE SOUND OF MUSIC and TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD) for no apparent reason (he also throws in an aborted “guess the body part beneath the psychedelic lights” love scene that looks like it was cut from THE TRIP). A good bit about Hell’s Angels becoming country club conservatives starts well enough, but quickly fizzles out (reality is weirder than Armitage’s now-quaint mockery: today, wealthy, respectable businessmen buy $30,000 dollar Harleys to pretend they’re badasses on the weekend, while the square, old-fashioned, meat-eating footballers Armitage attacks as fascistic, patriotic goons, are now multimillionaires who piss on the national anthem for millions to watch on TV). And worst of all, the finale at the commune stops the movie cold when it should be delivering the goods. Phil Borneo has an inherently funny, Gene Wilder-ish quirkiness to his delivery that promised a lot, but his commune leader character isn’t developed by the time Armitage and Corman throw away the movie with a deus ex machina ending that’s as unsatisfying as it is decidedly unfunny (forget the Mel Brooks-copied Yiddish God voiceovers...what is a true icon like Alfred E. Neuman doing with the likes of dubious “heroes” JFK and Che Guevara?). GAS-S-S-S had all the ingredients for a tasty satire on late 1960s America in all its f*cked-up glory...too bad it didn’t have a more conscientious chef.
The 1080p HD 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer for GAS-S-S-S is a considerable upgrade from the old MGM "Midnite Movie" double feature release. Fine image detail is much improved, while colors fairly pop (when there are colors amid all the surprisingly dreary desert shots). Depth is minimal, but contrast is nicely balanced (even with those solar flare-outs), and grain, except when exaggerated by the original lighting and film stock, is pretty tight. The PCM mono audio track is a bit of a disappointment, considering the memorable soundtrack, but it’s quite clean and crisp. English subtitles are available, along with the sole extra: an original trailer. (Paul Mavis)
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